Japan-U.S. Cooperation After the Coronavirus Pandemic:
From a Security Perspective

Hidetoshi Hirata
July 28, 2020

Translated by Shiori Okazaki

A PDF version of this paper is available for download here.


    1. Introduction
    2. Diversifying Security Challenges and Threats
    3. Understanding the Competition Continuum
    4. Changes in the Security Environment Brought About by the Coronavirus Pandemic
    5. The Future of Japan-U.S. Cooperation

Since the Cold War structure ended 30 years ago, the role of the military and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) has expanded. During the Cold War, it focused on preparations for large-scale conflicts and invasions, but it has now shifted to activities other than war, such as international peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and the fight against terrorism. Under these circumstances, in recent years, we are seeing more attempts by China and Russia to change the status quo. They are expanding their own interests in various ways, while skillfully avoiding the military intervention of other countries that include the United States. Around Japan, China has sent government vessels that repeatedly invade Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. Its other activities include reclaiming land and constructing military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In Japan, these so-called “gray-zone” actions are not recognized as armed attacks and responding to them is basically considered the role of the police authority rather than the SDF. This is because Japan is still bound to the binary notion of war and peace. No effort is made to integrate all instruments of national power and respond comprehensively, which is a problem.

In addition, while countries throughout the world are currently preoccupied with efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic, China is using this opportunity to actively expand its influence in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. As with previous pandemics, this coronavirus pandemic is thought to bring about change to international relations and the security environment, as well as further uncertainty.

Even the U.S. military, which works on various missions throughout the world, was fixed on the notion that the military only needs to consider how to handle military conflicts. Due to ideas that were solidified during the long Cold War, it was thought that war is followed by peace, which in turn is a matter of politics and diplomacy, and does not need military involvement. However, based on the security environment in recent years, the U.S. military has begun to think that such an approach would not enable victory against competitors.[1] National security is inherently a comprehensive issue that includes factors such as politics and the economy, and should be handled strategically using all instruments of national power.

It takes a long time to grow and foster defense capabilities, which includes the development of operation concepts, equipment systems, organizations, and human resources. The role expected of the military is expanding, and because of technological development and other factors, rapid changes are taking place. The current coronavirus pandemic makes the future even more uncertain. In such a security environment, what should the SDF and the military keep in mind during their preparations? Security is an issue that the entire nation should tackle using all instruments of national power, and after the end of the Cold War structure, the role of the military has expanded to include stages before military conflict. From that perspective, how should we view international relations and the strategic environment in the future, and what sort of preparations should be made? How should we envision Japan-U.S. cooperation, which plays an important role in not only Japan’s security, but security in Asia as a whole? These are the points this memo will discuss.

The U.S. military provides a great example in how to consider the above issues. Despite being the largest and strongest military power in the world, it was not quite successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, and allowed China to change the status quo in the South China Sea. Taking these lessons to heart, the U.S. military seeks to break away from the binary notion of war and peace, and is building a new concept in the strategic environment of competition among great powers.

The U.S. military is now considering operation concepts and methods of military preparation based on a new understanding of international relations: the “competition continuum.”1 As Japan is an ally of the United States, this change in direction has a great impact on the defense capabilities of the SDF. Japan and the United States must share this understanding of the “competition continuum.” Together, they must consider, cooperate, and respond to varied and continuous forms of “competition below armed conflict.”


  1. Diversifying Security Challenges and Threats

China, while skillfully avoiding the intervention of the U.S. military, the SDF, and the military of other countries, is forcefully attempting to change the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Russia, using hybrid combat, made a similar attempt in the Crimean Peninsula. These are examples of so-called “gray-zone” situations, where countries attempt to gradually change the status quo in territories and interests, without any armed conflict. In recent years, this has become a great challenge and threat in security.

Around Japan, China has made various challenges against our territory and airspace. This includes illegal activities by Chinese government vessels in our exclusive economic zone around the Senkaku Islands and invasion into our territorial waters. In the air above the East China Sea, China has designated an area that includes Japanese airspace as its own air defense identification zone, announced that it would take strong measures against any invasion, and have continued to patrol the area.

Because it would be difficult to deem the situation around the Senkaku Islands an armed attack, the Japan Coast Guard is responding to it, and the SDF has not been involved. But if China further expands their activities in the sea, or their actions escalate otherwise, questions remain whether Japan can respond seamlessly and effectively.

In the South China Sea, China took over disputed territories by force, constructed facilities such as airfields, and established its own jurisdiction. Since 2015, the U.S. military has carried out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to show opposition to these forceful changes in status quo, and has tried to prevent further expansion. However, because the United States did nothing until then, this has become a fait accompli. The U.S. military’s response in the South China Sea may have been partially due to political issues. But it seems that problems also existed in the military’s response preparation, including operation concepts on responding to gray-zone situations (which are designed to skillfully avoid military interventions).

Furthermore, the methods that adversaries use to accomplish their goals are becoming more diverse. This includes infringements of sovereignty through actions that make us hesitate to respond with military force. Examples include cyber and electromagnetic threats that Russia used in so-called hybrid combats in Crimea, which subsequently garnered much attention.

In telecommunications and space, which support military operations and have become more important for our economy and social life, we are seeing more physical and non-physical methods that challenge and threaten their stable operations. It can easily be assumed that these new types of threats are aimed at not only military targets, but also important social infrastructures such as transportation, power supplies, and financial systems. Even in terms of activities that influence the leadership and opinions of the target country, such as traditional psychological warfare and espionage, the development of information technology has allowed for new methods. This includes spreading disinformation on social media, as well as shaping public opinion by manipulating various media.

Given these circumstances, it is becoming increasingly important to consider national security as a whole, without separating the military from other fields such as politics, the economy, and society. Creating the necessary structure that would make this possible, including cooperation with our allies and friends, is an urgent task.


  1. Understanding the Competition Continuum

Based on these threats, how should we envision the role of military power, which continues to expand in our security strategy? What are the preparations required to fulfill that vision, and how should Japan and the United States cooperate? When considering these questions, the concept of competition continuum serves as a strong point of reference. This concept, proposed by the U.S. Joint Force Development, discusses how to view international relations and the strategic environment, as well as the role of the U.S. military.

Since the end of the Cold War, international affairs have been changing rapidly. We must appropriately position and make full use of the military’s various roles in achieving a wide range of national goals. It is no longer possible to adequately respond to world affairs through a binary notion of war and peace, where we use military force against armed attacks by adversaries, then withdraw when the conflict ends.

Until a few years ago, the mainstream approach in the United States to gray-zone situations in the East and South China Seas seemed to be that it was a regional issue that ought to be resolved among concerned parties, without the United States’ involvement. This changed after Russia’s hybrid combat in Crimea in 2014. Recently, there seems to be growing awareness that dealing appropriately with such gray-zone situations through collaboration with allies and friends would prevent competitors from gaining an advantage in the region, which is in the United States’ interest. China is transforming disputed islands in the South China Sea into military bases, stealing advanced technology through various methods, and rapidly strengthening its military power. Witnessing such actions, the United States seems to have come to recognize the need to seriously address gray-zone situations, which are becoming more apparent in that region.

Recognizing these issues, in June 2019, the U.S. military introduced the concept of “competition continuum” in their Joint Doctrine Note 1-19. This concept aimed to change the mindset of the military, clarify the future role of the military, and provide operation concepts.1

Below is a summary.

First, the note lays out the basic concept of international relations as follows: “Competition is a fundamental aspect of international relations. As states and non-state actors seek to protect and advance their own interests, they continually compete for diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage.” Then, as characteristics of the current strategic environment as it relates to military operations, the note illustrates how geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China employ every instrument of national power to gain a strategic advantage in a manner calculated not to trigger armed conflicts.

The note continues that, until now, the joint force has adopted various constructs and procedures based on a binary notion between armed conflict and peace. However, in order for the joint force to play its role in advancing U.S. national interests in international relations and the strategic environment as described above, it must adopt a better framework for understanding, describing, and participating in that environment. For that reason, “competition continuum”—a phrase that describes how “cooperation,” “competition below armed conflict,” and “armed conflict” occur simultaneously, and enduring competition is conducted at all times—best describes our current world, and is a necessary concept in considering the role of the joint force.

The note says that, while the United States is always “cooperating” with other countries, it is also continuously engaged in “competition below armed conflict,” and within that, must also handle “armed conflict.” There could be partial “cooperation” with adversaries and rivals, and conversely, depending on the field, “competition” with friendly states as well.

The note explains that, in order to respond to the current strategic environment, the government and the military must have a shared understanding that the “competition continuum” is the norm. It is important that, through this common understanding, “competition below armed conflict” with potential adversaries is won through military power and other means, without escalating to “armed conflict.”

The note also describes the objectives and precautions of military operations in “cooperation,” “competition below armed conflict,” and “armed conflict,” and how the military should cooperate with friendly states.

In order to respond rapidly to various conflicts throughout the world, the U.S. military has relied on allies and U.S. forces deployed in those countries. However, regional military balance has been leaning towards China and Russia, and China and Russia have been seeking and implementing means to fulfill their objectives while avoiding any full-scale response by the United States. Based on these changes in the security environment, the U.S. military has begun to recognize the importance of continuously engaging in gray-zone situations in faraway regions.

Based on the Japan-U.S. alliance, Japan must also share this understanding of international relations and the strategic environment. The role of the SDF, whose main purpose until now was to eliminate armed attacks against Japan, must be examined and reconsidered. Japan should then consider how specifically to cooperate with the United States in handling gray-zone situations and competition below armed conflict (which have not been considered much thus far), and implement necessary measures.


  1. Changes in the Security Environment Brought About by the Coronavirus Pandemic

Facing increasingly diverse threats as explained above, military roles and operations need to undergo significant transformations. Now, we are also in the midst of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic. What changes will this pandemic bring in terms of security, and especially the role of the military? While we cannot foresee the future at this stage, one point we now clearly recognize is that the pandemic itself is a security threat, and that nations need to prepare in a comprehensive manner. The various changes brought about by the pandemic add to the uncertainty of the security environment, and are likely to pose many challenges. Let us now consider what post-pandemic changes might occur in the security environment.

(1) Security Concerns During the Coronavirus Pandemic

While the world is busy trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus, China is using this opportunity to further expand its interests and gain advantage in the region. Around Japan, Chinese government vessels have continued to invade territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, and Chinese aircraft are still flying above the islands. In the South China Sea, China’s activities include operating marine research ships in the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam and Malaysia, which Vietnam has called “continuous intimidation and harassment.” Furthermore, in mid-April, Sansha City in Hainan Province, China, established administrative areas called Xisha District and Nansha District. If they reclaim the Scarborough Shoal, they may establish the Zhongsha District as well. It is worrisome that the longer the pandemic continues, the more the status quo may change.

In addition, China quickly resumed production and other economic activities, and is providing medical supplies (both paid and free) around the world to grow its presence and influence. China seems to consider “pursuing its own interests” as its only and greatest goal. It seems to do whatever it can while assessing the situation, and act upon any opportunity that presents itself. While each country is preoccupied with its own response to the worldwide pandemic, gray-zone situations may further increase. Furthermore, there may be other countries like China that take advantage of the pandemic and try to expand its own interests.

What about international cooperation? While every country ought to cooperate and deal with the worldwide pandemic together, unfortunately, international collaboration seems to be lacking at the moment. Pandemics require an adequate supply of medical and sanitary goods, but with this current crisis, major countries such as France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United States, and India seemed to block exports and take everything they can.[2] Each country appears to be prioritizing its own interests even more, such as Russia and Ukraine restricting basic food exports, as if to aim for price increases. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is how countries behave when they start to panic.

At the same time, if countries wished to handle such emergencies largely on their own, they would need to have all medical supplies, human resources, and more offhand. They would first need to secure various systems for the procurement of raw materials (including stockpiles), production, services, and more. Taking all those steps may be economically inefficient. It is therefore important for countries to have allies that share values, strengthen collaboration with them on a regular basis, and establish a system of cooperation. International organizations have limited authority, and it is difficult to rely on them to secure global access to supplies, human resources, and services during emergencies. On the other hand, in terms of sharing accurate information and updates quickly, the role of international organizations is likely to become even more important.

In addition, the current pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of relying on overseas production through global supply chains. Medical and sanitary supplies, which are needed to deal with this disease, are scarce. The shutdown of China, “the factory of the world” that manufactures everything from cars to communication electronics, increased the risk of dependence on China. Supply chains clearly need to be restructured and diversified in the future.

(2) Changes in Security That Are Expected After the Coronavirus

As with other worldwide pandemics in the past, this coronavirus pandemic will surely have a major impact on international politics and the international economy. It is exceedingly difficult to foresee how things will change and what will remain unchanged. Let us instead consider the effect of the coronavirus on the role of the military, especially in terms of the current security environment as was previously described.

First, we must recognize that infectious diseases like the coronavirus pandemic are a great threat to national security and prosperity. It is necessary to gather all instruments of national power and build systems that can respond to such diseases. In addition, responding appropriately to infectious diseases is an important security issue, in the sense that we should not create a gap in security or allow competitors to gain an advantage.

In addition, based on the regret that globalization thus far has been too focused on the pursuit of economic efficiency, there is a possibility that supply chains will be reconsidered, and that the economy, including supply chains, will be divided into blocs. If that happens, there may be less cooperation with competitors, and competition below armed conflict may occur more frequently. Moreover, the spread of disinformation and misinformation caused further anxiety and confusion in people who were already worried. This reminded us of the importance of disseminating reliable information quickly and accurately, as well as the effectiveness of tactics that manipulate information and deceive or cause turmoil in society. As information technology develops further and is used by more people in the future, competition in this field may become even more sophisticated and diverse. What is clear is that, after the coronavirus pandemic, preparations for competition below armed conflict, as well as strengthened collaboration with allied countries and friends, will become even more important.

The international community revolves around nations, and in the end, people can only rely on their own nation. That fact is unlikely to change even in a post-coronavirus world. International organizations will likely become more important in terms of information sharing and situational understanding, but we cannot expect them to provide concrete rescue measures during crises. Nor should we expect from other countries more than a certain amount of support. When people need help, they ultimately have no choice but to rely on their own national governments. Based on this reality, people will likely turn to nationalism.[3]

On the other hand, globalization through information technology may never stop, and may accelerate instead. In order to ensure strong defense capabilities, we must have less involvement by humans, who are susceptible to pandemics. From this perspective, it is likely that the current automation, robotization, and networking of weapons systems will progress even further. Safe and stable access to and use of cyberspace and space will even become more important for both military personnel and civilians, and responding to threats in those realms will be critical.

Furthermore, because the global economic recession will likely continue for a while, more money may be invested in securing a stable social life. The budget allocation for national security, including military expenses, may be reduced. Therefore, it will be even more important to use all instruments of national power when responding to competition below armed conflict.


  1. The Future of Japan-U.S. Cooperation

Every field is now globalized. After the pandemic, supply chains for manufacturing various products or providing services may be reviewed, and the economy may be divided into blocs. However, even after the pandemic, there will be greater reliance on data and information technology, and globalization in these areas is likely to progress even further. In such an interdependent world, it would be difficult for one country to respond to various threats on its own. Strengthening collaboration with allies will likely become more important.

As international relations and the security environment become increasingly uncertain after the pandemic, we must continue to protect our freedom and democracy, and ensure and maintain the stability of the international community. To that end, cooperation between Japan and the United States, which share common values and have great economic and technological power, is essential. Both countries should assume leadership and urgently consider concrete measures for cooperation. Cooperation during competition below armed conflict, including worldwide pandemics, had not been seriously considered until now, but is likely to become even more important. Japan and the United States should work together to consider concrete measures as soon as possible, and collaborate closely to implement them.

As a first step, it is important for both countries to share their understanding of threats and competition below armed conflict. They must also share an understanding of international relations and the security environment, such as the competition continuum that the U.S. Joint Force put forth. Based on this shared understanding, Japan and the United States must discuss joint response policies that include everything from competition below armed conflict to actual armed conflict. Both countries must also consider and discuss the operation concept of various instruments of national power, specific measures of cooperation, and more.

During those discussions, Japan and the United States must have serious dialogues about their own concrete response policies and concepts. SDF operations in security are still based on the binary notion of wartime and peacetime, and Japan faces a major challenge in that its response to so-called gray-zone situations, or competition below armed conflict, is not an integrated effort based on all instruments of national power. Collaboration between the public and private sectors remains another significant challenge when responding to competition below armed conflict. Various bureaucratic departments remain divided, and the involvement of private companies is essential in fields such as space and cyberspace.

In terms of specific cooperation between Japan and the United States, there are various activities, including those listed by the U.S. Joint Force, that enhance our capabilities or discourage competitors. Examples include: continuous discussions on response policies and concepts, joint training and exercises, strengthening the common command, forward deployment of units, stockpiling equipment and materials, timely and appropriate shows of presence, sharing information with friendly countries, preparing for crisis response, and activities in cyberspace. Both countries should form and promote various measures, including military operation plans that engage allies and cover everything from gray-zone situations to actual armed conflict, manufacturing and stockpiling necessary equipment and supplies, deployment, establishment of necessary organizations, and training and development of operation personnel.

It is particularly important to conduct continuous and real-time monitoring of competitors’ activities in various territories and domains, and to share that information with other countries. Such actions would deter and block the intentions and actions of competitors who try to gain an advantage in various ways. Japan and the United States should immediately begin to consider the target domains, areas, situational understanding, methods of sharing information, specific systems, and more, and implement those measures. Time is likely to give competitors a greater advantage. It is important to recognize that responding steadily to competitions below armed conflict one by one, ensuring that we do not give competitors the advantage in any field, will help deter new challenges.


Author Biography

Hidetoshi Hirata is a retired Lt. General, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (retired August 2013). He is currently an advisor, Aerospace Company of Fuji Heavy Industry. He was the Commander of Training Command (2012-2013), the Commandant of Air Staff College (2011-2012), the Commander of Southwestern Composite Air Division stationed at Okinawa (2009-2011) and the Director General of Defense Planning and Policy Department (A5/6/8), Air Staff Office (2007-2009). He has Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University (1989) and M.S. in national resources strategy from Industrial College of Armed Forces, National Defense University (1999). He graduated from the University of Tokyo with MS in aeronautical engineering March 1980.


[1] U.S. Joint Force Development. “Joint Doctrine Note 1-19: Competition Continuum.” Joint Chiefs of Staff, 03 Jun. 2019. https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/jdn_jg/jdn1_19.pdf

[2] Kawase, Tsuyoshi. “COVID-19 and International Trade Rules.” Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, 16 Apr. 2020. https://www.rieti.go.jp/jp/special/special_report/115.html

[3] Funabashi, Yoichi, and Yuichi Hosoya. “In a Post-Coronavirus World, We Need to Break Away from the Idea that Japan is Special.” Toyo Keizai Online, 4 May 2020. https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/347405

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