The US Will Not Defend Japan, But Tokyo Doesn’t Tell the Truth to the Public

Washington and Tokyo strongly opposed China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion in the East China Sea. Still, the U.S. doesn’t promise anything special about defending Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a Summit Meeting with U.S. President Joseph Biden during his official visit to Washington D.C., On April 10, they issued a joint statement as the outcome of the meeting.

In the statement, Biden mentioned the U.S.’s unwavering commitment to Japan’s defense under Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty, using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear. He also affirmed that Article V applies to the Senkaku Islands.

Article V of the Security Treaty reads, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”

Senkaku, also known as the Diaoyu in China and the Diaoyutai in Taiwan, is a small group of Japanese-administered, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islands, but Japan rejects the existence of a territorial dispute.

The U.S. government acknowledges the administration of Japan over Senkakus but has taken no position on who has sovereignty over the islands. At least, that has been U.S. policy since 1972, when the Nixon Administration stated that, according to a document titled The Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations, published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and updated in 2021.

The tensions between China and Japan over the Senkakus flared up in 2012 because Japan’s central government purchased three of the islands from their private owner to preempt the then-governor of Tokyo prefecture, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islands and carry out various activities on them. China and Taiwan protested the move, and China began to increase maritime patrols around the Senkakus. Now, it has been a near-daily presence.

After that, to expand rhetorical support for Japan, the U.S. Congress inserted a resolution in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act stating that “the unilateral action of a third party will not affect the United States’ acknowledgment of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands.” In April 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly stated that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covered the islands. U.S. President Donald Trump, in 2017,  and Joe Biden, in 2021,  reiterated the Obama-era language. But, the CRS document reads, “The statements by the Obama, Trump, and Biden Administrations have not changed the U.S. government’s position of neutrality.”

On February 23, 2021, then-Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. supported Japanese sovereignty over Senkakus. However, three days later, he corrected his remark, stating that the U.S. position hadn’t changed.

To begin with, in 2005, the U.S. and Japan announced a document titled U.S.-Japan Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future, which declares that “Japan will defend itself and respond to situations in areas surrounding Japan, including addressing new threats and diverse contingencies such as ballistic missile attacks, attacks by guerilla and special forces, and invasion of remote islands.”

Therefore, the “U.S.’s unwavering commitment to Japan’s defense under Article V of the Security Treaty” means that if an armed attack occurs in Japanese territory, including the Senkakus, Article V will apply, and the U.S. Congress will discuss it. Then, because the U.S. has taken a neutral attitude toward the sovereignty of the Senkakus and Japan declared to defend itself from an invasion of remote islands, the U.S. Congress (or President) would judge that Japan should fight. If the U.S. military action is in the national interest, the U.S. will take it.

Though the U.S. doesn’t promise anything special, Tokyo hasn’t told the truth to the public.

The Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry misleadingly explains that the US-Japan Security Treaty requires the U.S. to defend Japan under an armed attack. The Defense Ministry uses ambiguous expressions.

Also, in June 2022, Japanese Representative Nobuhiko Isaka asked the Prime Minister four questions about Tokyo’s understanding: 1. If Japanese territory is attacked, will the U.S. military automatically defend Japan? 2. Will the U.S. military defend Japan after Congress approves it? 3. If the U.S. doesn’t dispatch its military and only provides the Japanese Self-Defense Force with weapons and ammunition, does the U.S. observe Article V of the Security Treaty? 4. What is the U.S.’s obligation?

However, Kishida, the Japanese Prime Minister, avoided answering. He only said that he believed the U.S. would fulfill its obligation Article V prescribes.

Tokyo doesn’t mention the possibility that the U.S. will not defend Japan. Otherwise, there’s no sufficient reason why Japan has to accept a significant number of U.S. military bases and personnel.

Article VI of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty describes the purpose of the U.S. military presence in Japan for “contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East, the United States of America is granted the use by its land, air, and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.”

The U.S. military in Japan perhaps works as a deterrent. Still, it wants to use its influence in the Far East, which Tokyo interprets as being in and north of the Philippines, Japan, and its surrounding area.

As the Japanese government knows the truth, its National Defense Strategy, which the Cabinet decided on December 16, 2022, set an objective that “should deterrence fail and an invasion of Japan occur, to rapidly respond to the invasion in a tailored and seamless manner; to take primary responsibility to deal with the aggression; and, while receiving support from the ally and others, to disrupt and defeat the invasion.”

Japan has been consistently subordinate to the U.S., so Tokyo doesn’t show an attitude toward detente with China, even if it risks heading toward war.

Reiho Takeuchi is a Japanese journalist whose work focuses on international politics. He has written a series of articles titled U.S. Military and Modern Colonialism on substack.