With Asian regional security unstable in recent days, some have speculated that fiscal woes will eventually lead to declining defense budgets and a decrease in the U.S.’ presence in Asia.
While over the next several decades this may well be the case, in the short term the U.S. is doubling down on its commitment to Asia and its allies in the region, with expansive and unprecedented military exercises with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces set to begin on 10th June on San Clemente Island in California, codenamed Dawn Blitz.
These exercises signal far more than a continuation of the so-called “pivot to Asia”; they indicate America’s willingness to hedge against China’s military rise far more explicitly than in the past. This unprecedented U.S.-Japanese military cooperation showcases the importance of coordination between America and its Pacific allies for Asian security in the future and signals the increasing likelihood the U.S. will play a major role in the Pacific in the years to come.
The present military exercises between Japan and the U.S. are unprecedented firstly in their scope and size. Over one thousand Japanese troops are participating, including ground troops, naval vessels and helicopters – a large force for a country with a constitution that prohibits maintaining forces that possess “war potential.” Forces from Canada and New Zealand are participating in these exercises as well. The use of ground troops from the Self-Defense Forces – which largely consist of naval forces, as benefits Japan’s status as an island nation – is in itself quite remarkable, representing a symbolic expansion of the Self-Defense Forces’ core competencies. These exercises are the first step toward developing an amphibious assault capacity – a clear expansion of traditional post-World War II Japanese capabilities.
Additionally, the June military exercises between Japan and the U.S. are unprecedented because of their focus. The exercises concern a hypothetical scenario in which Japanese forces operating in coordination with the U.S. are required to retake a small island. Despite U.S. denial, these exercise are a fairly clear reference to the ongoing Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute. The exercises would prepare the U.S. and Japan to retake the islands in the event of Chinese aggression.
The coordination goes far beyond naval drills and communications exercises, depicting a real world scenario (albeit, an unofficially unacknowledged one) wherein Japan and the U.S. must take military action in order to curb an offensive instigated by China. The fact that this military exercise deals with a contemporary security situation – and indeed, represents the development of offensive military capacities for Japan – indicates a new step in the U.S.-Japanese security relationship, and in Japan’s military role in the region as a whole.
Precisely because these military exercises are so unprecedented, China has complained through diplomatic channels to both Japan and the U.S. about the military drills. And in what is the most telling indication of the messages the U.S. wishes to convey through these exercises, neither the U.S. nor Japan appear to have mitigated or altered these drills in response to Chinese pressure. While military exercises serve an important operational function of helping militaries maintain capabilities and readiness and ensuring nations can operate together in times of crisis, military exercises are fundamentally diplomatic affairs as well, designed to convey messages to the international community. These exercises indicate that the U.S. seeks to signal to China that – fiscal woes aside – it will remain a player, together with its allies, in the Pacific for the foreseeable future.