Japan’s officialdom was astonished when Donald Trump was elected.

It was also terrified he’d live up to campaign promises and demand Tokyo pay more for US forces based in Japan, and might even pick a fight over supposed unfair trade practices.

Hence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to New York to meet the president-elect at Trump Tower, bringing flattery and a $3,700 Honma Beres 05 S Series golf driver as gifts. Abe followed up a few months later with a visit that included golf at Mar-a-Lago.

By all accounts Trump and Abe struck up a good relationship — much to Japanese relief.

Visits to Japan by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson further smoothed things over – though both men said they expected more from Japan.

Beyond this, little has been heard from the Americans about Japan improving its defense capability and providing some needed combat power to bolster US forces.

Now, something curious has happened: Tokyo officials and politicians privately gloating over Japan having tamed Trump and gotten the Japan-US defense relationship back on track — to wit, Japan doing only what it feels like doing.

And all it seemingly took was that golf club and some flattering language.

And all it seemingly took was that golf club and some flattering language.

To be sure, Japan is offering the prospect of buying a land-based Aegis anti-missile system, which will keep a few US defense contractors happy and lobbying the Trump Administration not to upset Tokyo.

Japan sending the JS Izumo destroyer vessel to “escort” a US Navy supply ship heading towards Korea recently and conducting naval diplomacy in Southeast Asia are helpful, but in the grand scheme of things matter little.

The Japanese government intends to deploy its helicopter carrier Izumo to the South China Sea in May to signal the Chinese government that freedom of navigation in the contested region will not be disrupted. Tensions between Beijing, Tokyo and Washington are increasing over China's island-building activities in the sea. Photo: Wikipedia.
Japan destroyer and helicopter carrier Izumo. Photo: Wikipedia.

The incoming US Ambassador to Japan might wish to size things up when he arrives.

When he asks about plans to increase Japan’s defense spending, he’ll hear — as have his predecessors — that the world’s third largest economy has a “case of the shorts” when it comes to the extra $5 billion needed for defense annually over the next five years.

Perhaps if he wanted to know about the integration of the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF), he could ask to see the radio with which the Ground Self-Defence Force, the Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Air Self-Defence Force can talk to each other?

And then request a visit to the Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM) mentioned in the revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines in 2015?

The Ambassador might be forgiven for thinking the ACM is a place where Japanese and US military personnel operate side-by-side, 24-hours a day, coordinating and directing exercises and patrols, and drafting operational plans and strategies.

However, the ACM as a place doesn’t exist and doesn’t seem to be in the works. There’s still little more to the ACM than a promise to talk if something happens. In other words, the plan is to wing it.

If Japan wants to demonstrate its seriousness about transforming the JSDF into a useful force, it should create a Joint Task Force (JTF) geared to defend Japan’s southern islands.

This is where China is throwing its weight around and according to some analysts preparing to seize Japanese territory when the time is right.

The JTF combining Air, Sea, and Ground operations under a single command will have a function of forcing JSDF services to cooperate at long last.

The JTF combining Air, Sea, and Ground operations under a single command will have a function of forcing JSDF services to cooperate at long last.

Further, installing the JTF at Camp Courtney on Okinawa adjacent to III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters would be operationally and politically useful — forging a more equal relationship between Japanese and American forces and belying the image of US forces as “occupiers.”

But it’s striking how little urgency Japan shows on these issues, given Beijing’s impressive strides and increasing Chinese pressure.

A former US official once commented, “the Japanese will always figure out what is the minimum amount of effort the US will tolerate and then do a little bit less than that.”

Indeed, it often seems Japan’s defense strategy is to do just enough to keep the Americans on the hook to do most of the hard work (and more than a little dying) to defend Japan.

This defense relationship desperately needs some balance after decades of excessive dependence on the United States.

This imbalance has created a misshapen JSDF unable to address current and developing threats, or to be of much use to US forces except in niche roles of submarine and anti-submarine warfare and air defense. Considerable roles, perhaps, but still niche roles.

Abe has said he wants to remedy this situation, but Japanese policymakers appear to be going in the opposite direction now that Trump has been quieted by flattery.

Upgrading the JSDF and building useful, practical links with US forces would cost a little money and require some effort. And Abe would need to spend political capital to force Japan’s political and bureaucratic worlds to go along – while winning over the broader public.

Instead, Japan appears to have decided splurging on a golf club for  Trump is easier.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine Officer.