U.S. and Japan Say They Will Strengthen Military Cooperation

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Japanese officials said on Wednesday that the two nations would expand their military cooperation, including improving Japan’s missile strike capabilities and making the U.S. Marine unit in that country more flexible for potential combat.

The changes come as both nations perceive greater threatening behavior from China and North Korea, as well as Russia. Those three countries have decades-long partnerships that they have recently affirmed in various settings, despite many nations’ condemnation of Russia over its war in Ukraine.

The United States and Japan have been working in recent years to strengthen their military alliance. On Wednesday, Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, and Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. defense secretary, met with their Japanese counterparts in Washington to discuss security issues and other matters. President Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan are scheduled to meet in Washington on Friday.

“There is clear strategic alignment between the visions of President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida,” Mr. Austin said at a news conference after meetings on Wednesday.

He also praised Japan’s decision to increase its annual military spending. Last month, the Kishida administration released a new national security strategy in which Japan committed to spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its annual defense budget, a substantial increase that puts it in line with a standard set by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The State of the War

  • In the East: The head of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, claimed that his fighters had seized the town of Soledar, which has become a focal point in Russia’s monthslong campaign to gain control of the key eastern city of Bakhmut. If the claim were true, it would be the first significant Russian victory in months.
  • Western Escalation: A cease-fire proposal seemingly aimed at splintering Western unity has instead been met with an escalation of military involvement by Ukraine’s allies.
  • New Equipment: The Western allies’ provision to Ukraine of infantry fighting vehicles signals their support for new offensives in coming months.

Mr. Austin also affirmed Japan’s decision to invest more in “counterstrike capabilities,” meaning missiles that can be used for offensive operations. Japan has said it intends to buy hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States.

Mr. Blinken said officials from the two nations will sign an agreement on a defense partnership in outer space later this week.

Under the new U.S. deployment arrangement in Japan, Marines who are serving in Okinawa as part of the 12th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit, will transform into a more mobile unit — the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment. The new configuration will allow them to more easily fan out to other islands along the coast when the need arises, U.S. officials said.

The littoral regiment will have battalion-size units, about 2,000 troops total, and have long-range fire capabilities that can hit ships. Mr. Austin said the change will lead to a presence that is “more lethal, more agile, more capable.”

The agreement will not increase the number of Marines serving in Okinawa, officials said. But it will allow Marines to more quickly deploy if tensions intensify in the region. Pentagon officials said the restructuring is in part to deal with China’s growing military activity and presence, including around the island of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that the Chinese Communist Party intends to bring under its rule.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has made American, Taiwanese and Japanese officials more anxious about the possibility of China trying a move on Taiwan — perhaps not in the coming months or years, but maybe by the end of the decade. Much depends on how Chinese officials perceive the balance of military strength in the region, which includes American forces, U.S. officials say.

In August, China alarmed Japan when it fired ballistic missiles in the waters around Taiwan to send a message of aggression to the island and to the United States after Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited in a show of support. Five of the missiles landed in the exclusive economic zone off Japan’s coast, the first such occurrence.

Japanese officials have also been disquieted by a series of joint military exercises conducted by China and Russia in the region. The two nations held one such exercise in May, the first one they had done together since Russia invaded Ukraine. Mr. Biden was visiting Tokyo at the time for a meeting of the Quad, a coalition of the United States, Japan, India and Australia that was formed in part to counter China’s growing power.

China and Japan have not resolved territorial disputes over waters and islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese and American militaries have noted increased Chinese maritime activity in the area, U.S. officials said.

Japan’s bolstering its military capabilities is likely to cause greater unease in South Korea to some degree, given the bitter memories there of Japan’s violent occupation of the Korean Peninsula, which still has a profound effect on relations between the two countries. But the United States has been pressing both nations, which share security interests and concerns, to maintain working ties. Besides China, the two countries and the United States are worried about the nuclear weapons program and military actions of North Korea.

The government run by Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea, launched more than 90 ballistic and other missiles in 2022, more than in any other year. It has continued to conduct missile launches this year. American, Japanese and South Korean officials are bracing for a potential nuclear test by North Korea.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s foreign minister, said on Wednesday that the American and Japanese governments had reaffirmed all aspects of the U.S. defense commitment to Japan, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella that is intended to act as a deterrent.

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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