Upbeat state visit overweight on optics, but visit to potent warship signals upgraded trajectory for Japan-US alliance

From Asia Times

US President Donald Trump’s state visit to the Land of the Rising Sun started on Saturday.

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe facing elections in both houses of the Diet in July, and with Trump facing mounting challenges on the home front as talk of impeachment fills Washington drawing rooms, both administrations are keen to milk the visit for maximum good vibes.

A fan of royalty, the US president was the first world leader to be greeted by new Emperor Naruhito. And of course, golf was on the agenda.

However, it is a visit by the two leaders to a controversial Japanese warship that may prove the long-term legacy of Trump’s trip.

Strategy trumps economics

Contentious economic issues – notably Trump’s insistence on a bilateral trade pact, his demand for Japan to cough up more for Japan-based GIs, the tariffs already hammering Japanese metals and the threat of tariffs hanging over Japanese-made autos and auto parts, the long, lingering aftermath of Trump’s lightning withdrawal from the Japan-led multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership – aired in closed-door talks, if not relegated to the back burner.

Abe was left on the sidelines during a whirlwind series of summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in which South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, China’s Xi Jinping and Trump enjoyed the limelight with the apparently charismatic young dictator.

With a sullen Kim easing back into missile tests, Abe’s aloofness is now starting to look like a blessing in disguise.

In advance of President Trump’s visit to the Kaga

Should the US pivot back towards a hard line on Kim, as looks increasingly inevitable, Abe is well placed to be Trump’s coat holder. Amid this uncertain regional security environment, a joint visit to the Japanese man-of-war Kaga is likely to be the highlight of Trump’s trip.

Unfurl the ensigns

The clunky designation of the Kaga as a “helicopter destroyer” was a crafty classification that gets around the limits of Japan’s U.S.-penned, pacifist constitution.

With Abe keen to make Japan great again, the vessel transparently represents a “Plan B” for the Abe administration. Under that, if “Plan A” – a revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which restricts weapons and deployments – proves politically unworkable, “Plan B” is simply to ignore it.

For what the Kaga really is, is a small aircraft carrier – a class of vessel Tokyo has not fielded since the Imperial Japanese Navy was relocated to the floor of the Pacific, courtesy of the US Navy in World War II.

Research is now underway to see if the Kaga will be able to deploy US-designed – and highly expensive – F-35 stealth fighters. The 19,500 ton Kaga, and her sister ship Izumo, with their on-deck heli squadrons, are small fry compared to America’s nuclear-powered super carriers, but if – as seems highly likely, if not a foregone conclusion – it proves feasible to use them as F-35 platforms, they will become potent power-projection instruments.

The Japanese navy – I mean the “Maritime Self Defense Force” – already fields a large, hard-hitting fleet of destroyers, including Aegis-armed vessels. The carriers, in combination with the newly operational Japan marine brigade, and a whopping 2019 defense budget of $47 billion, indicates that Tokyo is gearing up.

Thus far in his term, Trump – who appears to prefer withdrawing US troops to deploying them – has not proven to be a warrior president. Even so, a favorite Trumpian theme is to bash allies for spending little and doing less.

Moreover, as a president, he has given no indication that he cares about constitutional limits on power.

Given all this, Trump is likely, on Memorial Day weekend, to feel his heart beat a little faster when he first sets his eyes on the Kaga swinging at her moorings.

Pearl Harbor to the South China Sea

A carrier-sized irony lies at the heart of the visit. A previous carrier named Kaga was part of the Japanese task force that struck Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was later sent to the bottom at the Battle of Midway.

All this is likely to be diplomatically side-stepped in an era when the Rising Sun and Old Glory are allied, not opposed.

A Trumpian endorsement of Japanese maritime resurgence will warm the cockles of Abe’s heart and may empower him in his constitutional revision battle. It will also send a clear message to China, which, with its fast-increasing carrier fleet, weaponized South China Sea islands and guerilla-style maritime militia, is asserting its dominance in Asian waters.

That is where Japan can fill a gap. Even if Tokyo does not create a world-ranging navy, it can still project power under the rubric of “forward defense” in Asian waters. The Kaga has already steamed through the South China Sea and Japan’s geographic location and muscular posture make it unique among US allies in East Asia.

All indications are that South Korea, which is almost entirely deployed against North Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, bar Vietnam, are reluctant to confront China and unwilling to join the US Navy as it fights a war of nerves against Beijing’s forces in the South China Sea.

Due to this, US allies prosecuting freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea of late have hailed from far afield – Australia, France and the United Kingdom. Japan is the one regional exception.

The upgraded maritime force proves that Tokyo is not just willing, but is also increasingly well equipped, to be East Asia’s leading junior partner for Washington in the region – therefore, the visit to the Kaga is laden with more than symbology.

People’s Liberation Army Navy admirals, take careful note.


From Time Magazine

President Trump Visited Japan’s Biggest Warship Since World World II – Here’s What to Know About the JS Kaga:

For the last day of President Donald Trump’s highly stage-managed state visit to Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took him to tour the Japanese warship JS Kaga.

The Kaga, along with sister ship the Izumo, is the biggest warship that Japan’s navy, The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, has built since the end of the Second World War. And last December, Abe’s government announced plans to convert the Kaga and the Izumo to launch American-made F-35B stealth fighter jets. The conversion would effectively give the vessels many of the same capabilities as aircraft carriers––also a first for post-war Japan.

Aboard the Kaga, Trump praised the decision, along with the announcement that Japan plans to purchase 105 American-made F-35 fighters.

“And soon, this very ship will be upgraded to carry that cutting-edge aircraft. With this extraordinary new equipment, the JS Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond,” Trump said Tuesday aboard the ship.

That may be overstating Japan’s military ambitions. Japan’s constitution forbids the use of offensive weapons, which aircraft carriers have long been considered.

Still, all of the signals from Japan’s military are that it has no intention of using the Kaga or the Izumo like traditional aircraft carriers, says Jeffrey W. Hornung, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation who specializes in Japanese security and foreign policy.

“Given its history, it’s significant that Japan has come this far and they have the capability now that looks like an aircraft carrier … once it’s reconfigured,” he says. “But, then again, they’re not [aircraft carriers]. They don’t have any of the infrastructure for it to be deployed as such. They don’t have the strike capability. They don’t have any sort of intention to go further then what it is right now.”

Abe has been working for many years to strengthen Japan’s military and expand its ability to use force, including a push to amend the constitution to formally recognize the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. However, it’s delicate business in Japan, where the constitution is explicitly pacifist following the country’s surrender in World War II. In Japan’s military heyday, aircraft carriers were some of its most potent military weapons––and were used to launch the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into that war.

Here’s what to know about the JS Kaga and Japan’s military buildup.

What is the JS Kaga and is it really an aircraft carrier?

At 812 feet long and weighing in at 24,000 tons, the Kaga and the Izumo are the size of some World War II aircraft carriers. The last time Japan had a warship called the Kaga, named after a former province, it was an aircraft carrier that launched planes on Pearl Harbor.

The ships have a flat flight deck, were designed to carry up to 28 helicopters, and are officially classed as “helicopter destroyers.” Their primary job is anti-submarine warfare and quickly deploying Japanese military assets at sea. They also serve as command ships and can be used to quickly ferry humanitarian relief to far-flung places in Asia.

In part because of Japanese taboos about building offensive weapons, even after the vessels are upgraded to carry F-35 fighters, they still won’t be called aircraft carriers, but rather “multi-purpose destroyers.”

But even with the ability to launch sophisticated stealth jets, these ships won’t be like the aircraft carriers that the U.S. uses to project military power around the world, says Hornung. “They’re not geared toward anything like a carrier strike group,” he says. “The planes are not going to be permanently deployed on the ship. They’re actually going to be deployed on land, they’re only going to be used when necessary.”

And, he cautions, the Japanese likely won’t have the Kaga and the Izumoupgraded and able to deploy fighters for five to 10 years. It’s been notoriously difficult and costly, even for the U.S., to get ship flight decks ready to to field the F-35B, which can take off and land vertically thanks to a powerful swiveling jet engine.

As big as Japan’s new ships are, they are dwarfed by America’s super carriers, which are nearly 1,100 feet long and 114,000 tons. Even smaller aircraft carriers, like the U.K.’s HMS Queen Elizabeth and France’s Charles de Gaulle, are significantly larger by weight.

Hornung adds that in his talks with Japanese military officials, he’s seen no interest in developing an actual aircraft carrier similar to what the U.S. has.

Why did Trump visit the Kaga?

Trump’s visit to the Japanese warship, which he said made him feel “very safe,” came near the end of a state visit that was widely seen as Abe’s attempt to placate the American president.

Trump was the first world leader to meet the new Japanese emperor, and the trip involved rounds of golf, a cheeseburger dinner and a sumo match, where Trump awarded the President’s Cup––which the Japanese press took to calling the “Trump Cup”––to the winner.

Going to the Kaga, along with the announcement of a F-35 purchase order that Trump said would make Japan’s fleet “the largest of any U.S. ally,” is a signal to the U.S. leader that Japan is working to step up its efforts to defend itself, Hornung says.

“I just think the majority of this is all symbolic and pomp, but it’s meant to show how Japan is being a good ally and buying American,” he says.

Trump has repeatedly criticized U.S. allies for not spending enough on their own defense. He says it amounts to taking advantage of the U.S. military.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump told the New York Times, “We’re basically protecting Japan… And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore.”

Some 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan, but Japan has also increased its defense budget in recent years. Japan plans to spend about $48 billion a year on defense, about 1% of its GDP.

Why is Japan developing aircraft carrier capabilities now?

Japan’s military buildup, including the future conversation of the Izumo and the Kaga to carry fighter jets, is part of a growing wariness about China, especially when it comes to its outlying islands.

The focus of Japan’s concern has been what it calls the Senkaku Islands. Japan says they are sovereign territory. But the Chinese, who call them the Diaoyu Islands, also claim them. The rocky islands are about 560 miles from the Japanese mainland and 255 miles from the nearest Japanese air base on Okinawa.

Japan hopes to use the new capability in case its air base in Okinawa is unable to operate, Hornung says. It could also move fighter jets closer to the Senkakus, and other outlying islands, to shorten response times.

“When it comes to China and the Senkaku Islands, Japan will not back down no matter what,” says Hornung.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is part of China’s bigger push to assert its dominance in its own neighborhood. China has been drawn into conflict with the Philippines, as well as other neighbors, over claims it owns islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea that other countries see as theirs.

China has been increasingly testing Japan, with hundreds of military plane flights that have caused Japanese fighters to scramble, as well as incursions by Chinese fishing boats into waters under Japanese control, he says.

“Their feeling is that by having these ‘multipurpose destroyers,’ they’ll be able to disperse a limited number of planes and at least complicate things for Chinese [military] planners by knowing that well we have these two ships that are out there,” he says.

 


From Real Clear Politics

President Trump Greets Japanese Sailors Aboard Aircraft Carrier Kaga

President Donald Trump delivered remarks on the Japanese naval vessel “Kaga” during his state visit to Japan on Memorial Day weekend. The ship bears the same name as the Imperial Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, which led the attack on Pearl Harbor. The original Kaga was sunk in June 1942 during the Battle of Midway.

Trump said that following Japan’s purchase of 105 F-35 fighter jets, the Kaga will be refitted to carry fixed-wing aircraft as Japan’s first official aircraft carrier since World War Two.

President Trump’s Remarks:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, thank you very much. And I want to start by saying Happy Memorial Day. Happy Memorial Day. It’s a great day.

Thank you very much. And, you know, we had a tremendous couple of days with the Prime Minister. He’s a great gentleman, great leader. And I just want to say that our First Lady and I are very honored to be here today on the JS Kaga. That’s a great ship. They love this ship. You all love the ship, right? You feel good about it, don’t you? I do too. I feel very safe on this.

And I’m honored to be with my friend, the Prime Minister, and Mrs. Abe, and the extraordinary men and women of the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces.

It was a great honor last night and this morning to meet and greet your new Emperor and Empress – two very, very special people. Spectacular. And we got to know them, and they’re going to do a tremendous job for Japan. Going to make you very proud.

On behalf of the First Lady and myself, I want to take a moment to send our prayers and sympathy to the victims of the stabbing attack this morning in Tokyo. All Americans stand with the people of Japan and grieve for the victims and for their families.

Our thanks to Ambassador Hagerty, Mrs. Hagerty, Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer, and Rear Admiral Gregory Fenton for joining us today. Thank you very much. Thank you.

My thanks as well to Admiral Hiroshi Yamamura and also to Captain Hideki Mizuta, who commands this magnificent ship, for joining us today. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

At this very historic moment, as Japan begins Reiwa and the Reiwa era, we celebrate the U.S.-Japan alliance and the friendship between our freedom-loving peoples.

Our armed forces train and serve together around the world, including right here. Very special. In fact, this is the only port in the world where an American naval fleet and an allied naval fleet are headquartered side-by-side. The American and Japanese sailors stationed in this bay are living testaments to the enduring power of our incredible partnership.

As you know, Japan recently announced its intent to purchase 105 brand new, stealth F-35 fighter aircraft. The best in the world. This purchase would give Japan the largest fleet of F-35s of any of our allies. And soon, this very ship will be upgraded to carry that cutting-edge aircraft. With this extraordinary new equipment, the JS Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond.

I want to thank my friend and your Prime Minister – he’s an extraordinary man – for his commitment to improving Japan’s defense capabilities, which also advances the security of the United States of America.

And to all of the incredible American and Japanese service members here today, it has been a true privilege to visit with you. On behalf of all Americans, we extend our deep gratitude for everything you do to safeguard our people.

 


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