FPI Bulletin: The U.S.-Japan Alliance Five Years After Operation Tomodachi

March 11, 2016

On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered the triple disaster of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off its northeast coast, the subsequent tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Although the damage was concentrated along eastern Honshu Island, the government recorded a total 24,607 persons killed, missing, or injured across 20 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The World Bank estimated the toll of the disaster at $235 billion, by far the costliest in modern history. The U.S.-Japanese alliance was essential in the wake of this disaster, but it is even more striking to see how Japan has advanced as a security partner in the years since.
The disaster response by the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces was a milestone in the history of the alliance. On the day of the earthquake, the United States deployed the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, redirected more than a half-dozen other ships from around the Pacific, and dispatched Air Force and Marine Corps assets to the affected region. Over the following month, the U.S. Navy mobilized a total of 24 ships, 140 aircraft, and more than 15,000 sailors and Marines, while the U.S. Air Force flew hundreds of missions and delivered millions of pounds of cargo to afflicted areas.
The U.S. military effort was dubbed Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for “friend.” The near-complete mobilization of U.S. resources in the region – working alongside the entirety of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces -- demonstrated the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. The effort was only a first step toward Japan’s recovery, but a remarkable accomplishment as our ally grappled with its losses.
The significance of Operation Tomodachi is all the greater in light of emerging threats that the alliance faces today and the steps that the two sides have taken in response to them.
Since 2011, Chinese adventurism has raised tensions throughout the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the wake of Beijing’s November 2013 declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, and militarization of manmade islands in the South China Sea over the past year. North Korea continues to test both nuclear devices and ballistic missiles that place Japan and other U.S. allies throughout the region at risk. The importance of effective regional alliances has never been greater.
The United States and Japan are meeting the task. In April 2015, the two governments announced updated guidelines for defense cooperation. The new guidelines clarified the roles and missions that the two countries would execute in a variety of scenarios, and clarified that Japan will be a more capable alliance partner in the future. Most importantly, the agreement states that the two countries will provide “mutual protection of each other’s assets,” a Japanese role that was unthinkable for decades.
This upgrade to the alliance was made possible by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who organized a cabinet decision allowing Japan to conduct “collective self-defense” in July 2014 before winning parliamentary approval of the new policy in September of last year. Abe has backed the new policy with four consecutive defense budget increases, including a record budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
These breakthroughs are especially noteworthy in light of recent criticism by presidential candidate Donald Trump that “we take care of Japan,” among other allies, and “get virtually nothing” in return. In reality, the United States and Japan are taking strides to ensure that the alliance will be far more effective in the future, including in response to an attack against the United States or our forces.
Japan’s March 11, 2011 disaster, as well as the response that followed, serve as reminders that America’s global alliances are of too great importance to be mocked for political points. The next president would do well to continue the efforts of his or her predecessors to strengthen these relationships against whatever challenges the future may hold.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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