US and Japan agree to expand security alliance into space

The US and Japan have announced they are extending their security alliance to space in a push to defend against attacks on satellites amid growing concern about the threat from China.

“We agree that attacks to, from or within space present a clear challenge,” said US secretary of state Antony Blinken after he and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts in Washington on Wednesday.

“We affirm that, depending on the nature of those attacks, this could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of our Japan-US security treaty,” Blinken added, pointing to the section of the treaty stipulating that an attack on either party would prompt the other to “act to meet the common danger”.

The announcement, which comes ahead of a summit between Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida and US president Joe Biden on Friday, marks the latest effort by Washington and Tokyo to increase co-operation to counter China and prepare for a possible conflict over Taiwan.

It also comes as Beijing is significantly boosting its satellite presence amid growing military activity in space.

Since Biden took office, the US and Japan have taken a range of actions to send a stronger message to China, including conducting war games and stepping up war planning.

While the US has taken an increasingly hawkish stance towards Beijing, the Chinese military’s aggressive activity around Taiwan has contributed to a major shift in Japan’s position on the need to bolster its security.

After years of urging Tokyo to step up its defences, US officials have strongly welcomed the change, which was championed by former prime minister Shinzo Abe but has been continued by his successors, Yoshihide Suga, and now Kishida.

One senior US official said the moves amounted to a substantial “step change” from March 2020, when Suga visited Washington and signed the first US-Japan joint communiqué to mention Taiwan in more than 50 years.

“What Kishida has done has gone much further than not only any other Japanese leader before him, but much further than we thought frankly politically possible,” the official said. “What Japan is doing is basically moving up to the level of a top-tier Nato partner with respect to the kinds of appropriate military engagement, planning and investment.”

The senior defence officials and diplomats also announced the long-planned stationing of a US Marine Littoral Regiment, the Marine Corps’ most advanced formation, in Okinawa, to be completed by 2025. The unit includes advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities as well as anti-ship and transportation capabilities, officials said.

Austin said: “This is going to contribute in a major way in our efforts to help defend Japan and also promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

They also agreed to bolster bilateral training and exercises in Japan’s Southwest islands, which Tokyo calls the Nansei islands — where China has recently increased its naval presence.

“There was a time, not long ago, when such change would have been difficult and time-consuming to negotiate, particularly in Okinawa,” said Chris Johnstone, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This shows the strength of the political consensus in Japan about the urgency of the China challenge and the steps needed to address it.”

US and Japanese officials are also discussing a possible purchase of Tomahawk missiles by Tokyo, which would allow it to strike targets in China.

Kishida’s White House visit, his first since taking office in late 2021, comes weeks after Japan outlined a radical security policy shift that will include a substantial increase in defence spending and acquisition of counter-strike capabilities.

The five-year expansion of its military budget includes ¥5tn ($38bn) to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US.

Japanese officials say Kishida wants to use his meeting with Biden to showcase bolstered US-Japan deterrence and seek US co-operation ahead of the G7 summit, which he will host in his home city of Hiroshima in May.

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