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The decades-long alliance between Japan and the United States has enabled the two countries to better address wide-ranging security threats. Over time, the alliance has played a vital role in confronting the advancement of military capabilities across many parts of the Indo-Pacific, instability in energy-exporting countries of the Middle East, transnational terrorism, weapons of mass destruction threats both global and domestic, and much more.
Today, both countries again face daunting transnational security challenges that are already profoundly shaping the 21st century, including pandemics, the climate crisis, and other dramatic environmental changes.
This article explores how the Japan-U.S. alliance can help address these types of threats. It begins with a brief background on bilateral collaboration particularly relevant to these challenges: namely, in disaster response and preparedness. It then provides a short overview of climate security challenges occurring in the Indo-Pacific region and implications for the Japan Self-Defense Forces, before finally offering recommendations for both countries to consider.
A Long Tradition of Bilateral Cooperation in Disaster Response and Preparedness
Due to a long tradition of cooperation in preparing for and responding to disasters, Japan and the United States are well positioned to mitigate these types of threats together in the future. The countries have cooperated in responding to disasters for decades, and in the early 2000s began teaming together more frequently to assist other countries in the wake of crises. The tragic Triple Disaster of March 11, 2011 was a pivotal event that led to even greater disaster-related collaboration between the two countries.
The sheer magnitude of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed nearly 16,000 people, would have strained the response capacity of any country. These two natural disasters then triggered a devastating nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on the northeastern coast of Honshu, causing physical and psychological damage that will continue to impact Japan for decades.
Responses to major nuclear accidents are thankfully rare, but very complicated. As closely as U.S. and Japanese forces coordinated and worked together to address the devastation of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident, this required addressing challenges neither country had dealt with before and for which existing rules and guidance were at times inadequate. In one example, the U.S. attempt to provide radiation exposure medications was temporarily hindered by issues regarding pharmaceutical import rules and differences in dosing recommendations. The sheer complexity of the disaster response, and the large number of interagency response supporters necessary for both countries, eventually required Japan and the United States to establish new, ad hoc interagency coordination mechanisms.
Since that time, Japan has played an extremely active role in sharing lessons from the response to the Triple Disaster and considers it a solemn responsibility to help other countries prevent and prepare to respond to complex crises.
Many government officials in the United States and Japan decided to continue collaboration to draw lessons on both countries’ responses to the Triple Disaster, as well as other natural disasters and manmade crises. Among these lessons was clarity that altering some government structures and responsibilities would help better prepare for future disasters (and potentially prevent them). As the Japanese government worked methodically to establish a new nuclear regulatory agency and a national security council, regular exchanges between American and Japanese counterparts informed this process and further diversified personal relationships among both countries’ officials.
One multi-year process, led by Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat crisis management office and the U.S. National Security Council’s preparedness policy office, focused on enhancing all-hazards crisis preparedness for both countries. This included numerous exchanges across multiple agencies relevant to disaster preparedness and response, including defense, emergency management, health, and law enforcement. During several exchanges, Japanese and U.S. officials shared experiences and observations from a range of natural and manmade crises, including the Triple Disaster, the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Aum Shinrikyo chemical attacks, the U.S. anthrax attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, and terrorist attacks involving Japanese citizens in Algeria. Japanese and U.S. officials also shared lessons from each country’s disaster preparedness exercise programs.
Japanese officials welcomed a small group of U.S. officials to observe and provide feedback on an extraordinary, more than 1,000-person chemical attack exercise in Yamagata Prefecture in 2012. The U.S. observers included the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leaders from defense, emergency management, health, and law enforcement agencies as well as the White House—all of whom came away from the exercise incredibly impressed and with specific ideas to carry back into U.S. preparedness efforts.
Altogether, these exchanges showed the high value of all-hazards disaster preparedness exchanges between Japan and the United States given the unique vulnerabilities to natural disasters and manmade security threats both countries face. Such collaboration continues today, including in recent years working to prepare for and prevent crises that could occur around the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, now rescheduled for Summer 2021.
Furthermore, with environmental change and climate security threats mounting in the Indo-Pacific, this shared history can serve as a foundation for how the alliance can evolve to address transnational threats in the coming decades of the 21st century. The following section outlines these threats in brief, focused on Japan and its neighborhood.
Japan: Regional Climate and Environmental Security Issues
Japan’s geography puts it in a tenuous position, from both a security and an environmental point of view. Its largest trading partner, China, has staked out claims to be the dominant regional power, claiming sea lanes and disputed territory in the South China Sea and competing with Japan for influence in Southeast Asia. Relations with another major trading partner, South Korea, have taken a turn for the worse since 2018. Historic grievances over reparations from World War II were cast back into the political spotlight by a South Korean court ruling and renewed clashes over disputed islands have escalated into a trade and diplomatic spat. Both conflicts take place with the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal in the background and a politically challenged U.S. military presence in the (domestic) foreground. In response to these and other tensions, Japan, India, Australia, and the United States are reactivating their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”), which Beijing sees as antithetical to its interests.
From an environmental point of view, circumstances are equally challenging. Japan has endured multiple climate change-induced shocks in recent years, from the Shikoku floods in June-July 2018, which killed 225, to Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019, which required the evacuation of 4 million and caused 90 deaths, to flooding in Kyushu in July 2020, which prompted evacuation of 3 million and killed around 80.
Indeed, three types of climate security challenges are highly relevant to the Japan-U.S. alliance: impacts on military installations, the advent of new or changed missions, and climate insecurity which serves as a catalyst for global instability.
Turning first to military installations, it is worth noting that military bases are, in essence, cities. The buildings, ports, airports, and power plants they comprise are typically built to withstand the weather of the past–not the extremes of the present and near future. This is particularly salient in the Marshall Islands, a collection of over 1,500 islands where the sea has risen by over a foot in the past 30 years. Despite warnings from the local environment agency, the U.S. Air Force selected Kwajalein Atoll to build the new $1 billion Space Fence, a tracking radar designed to keep astronauts and satellites safe from space debris. Yet following its installation a U.S. Geological Study survey revealed that it will likely be inundated by tidal surge at least annually in the coming decades. One lesson is that military installations, like civilian cities, face the task of projecting future climate impacts into their planning, budgeting, and operations.
Military missions are also changing with the climate. Now more than ever, military units are called upon to be ‘first responders of last resort’ to conduct urgent Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response (HA/DR) operations. Planning, equipping, and training for such missions—which are often launched during or immediately after extreme weather events–has become a normal call of duty. Indo-Pacific militaries are no exception. For example, India created a dedicated National Disaster Response Force in 2006 to respond uniquely to natural and man-made disasters. It has grown from an initial force of 8 battalions to 12 battalions today, each equipped with 18 specialist search and rescue teams, and residing under the Ministry of Home Affairs. In Sri Lanka, HA/DR has become so integral to the security landscape that in 2017, Army officials shared that one-third of their force would be permanently dedicated to national capacity building and disaster response.
Finally, military and security professionals are increasingly viewing climate change as a threat multiplier. This term came into security parlance in 2007, with the launch of a seminal report by the Washington-based Center for Naval Analyses. The authors, former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security) Sherri Goodman and eleven retired US 3-star and 4-star generals and admirals, lent their considerable gravitas to the topic, attracting attention from executive branch policymakers and Capitol Hill; essentially launching the field of climate security.
Climate’s role as a threat multiplier manifests in heightened instability at the sub-national, regional, or international level. This can occur when scarcity of water, food, land, energy, or other essentials for life and livelihoods exacerbate existing societal tensions and competition. Such amplification of underlying human security issues expands the universe of dangers that military and security planners must monitor, prepare for, and respond to. The Indo-Pacific is the world’s most natural disaster-prone region; home to a surfeit of vulnerable populations; and endowed with fragile states with enduring sociopolitical tensions—a petri dish for all three types of climate security challenges—making escalated instability, forced migration, and conflict more predictable and more likely.
Instability can also occur when the sociopolitical effects of the changing climate contribute to international tensions with the potential to escalate. For example, existing competition over resources such as water rights and fish stocks can escalate when impacts like extreme weather or warming oceans diminish the supply of the resource in question. One such concern arose this summer in the South China Sea. Vietnamese and Philippine fishing groups urged their governments to resist a fishing ban imposed by China to protect stocks at risk from overfishing and climate impacts. This followed an incident in April, when a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in waters under dispute by both countries. Such episodes both add to intra-regional tensions and provide more fodder for distrust between the Chinese and U.S. militaries operating in the region.
Societal tensions can also be exacerbated by climate impacts. A recent report revealed that during the first half of 2019 extreme weather induced more than 2 million Indians to migrate to other Indian states, many of which are known for anti-migrant politics directed toward Indians from different linguistic backgrounds. While a direct link between climate change, climate-induced migration, and open conflict has not been established, the confluence of an influx of poor migrants to overcrowded urban areas with inadequate infrastructure is a setup for human security challenges.
Climate security is a key focal area in the larger domain of environmental security, which is the universe of conflicts related to a lack of, or abundance of, natural resources. Growing global populations and the advancement of large throngs of people into the middle and upper classes have spurred a surge in demand that the earth’s systems cannot sustainably supply. One indicator of this is Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. The date for 2020 is August 22nd. Consumption of non-renewable resources and carbon emissions for the remainder of the year exceed what can be sustainably produced and add to the growing global carbon deficit.
In market systems, economic ability dictates who can access scarce or precious resources. Basic necessities such as food, water, and energy may be financially unattainable at a local level absent intervention from government or aid groups. Failure to provide for such necessities can be the precursor for humanitarian crises, mass migrations, and intra- or interstate conflict.
Such is the case in Bangladesh, the second largest recipient of Japanese development assistance. The country is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Kutupalong Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar. Of the approximately 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who fled military-led attacks in Myanmar for Bangladesh, an estimated 200,000 were affected by floods in 2018. The group, about half of which were children, sought shelter under plastic sheets held in place by bamboo because they were not permitted permanent structures. Japan has been criticized for ignoring the fate of the Rohingya and may be implicated if other climate-induced events—or the COVID-19 pandemic, which is reportedly hitting the camp during the summer of 2020—lead to catastrophic outcomes for this vulnerable population.
Japan’s regional supply chains and market reach also introduce climate dependencies. As home to the largest consumer electronics industry and the third-largest automotive industry globally, Japan relies on a number of Southeast Asian countries for both components manufacturing and consumer markets. This links the Japanese economy inextricably with those of, in particular, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Climate hazards in those countries necessarily have economic consequences for Japan, as evidenced by the 2011 Thai floods, which damaged more than 7,510 industrial and manufacturing plants in 40 provinces, inducing US$45.7 billion in economic losses. As a major foreign investor in Thailand, Japan suffered both significant disruptions to important supply chains and a decrease in buying power from a portion of its Southeast Asian consumer audience. Such disruptions can be expected to continue, with attendant vulnerabilities for Japanese business interests.
Recognition of the environmental factors in fomenting insecurity is a first step. The next is to formulate plans and policies, preferably in consultation with allies, to prevent such insecurity where possible and rectify it where necessary.
Implications for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces
Through direct climate impacts, and indirect effects on the social, political, and geostrategic context in the Indo-Pacific, climate change is altering and will continue to alter the domain of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), affecting their strategic environment, and changing the context for their missions in myriad ways. These changes will be complex, multi-faceted, and present both risks and opportunities for Japan’s national security interests—and for the Japan-U.S. alliance.
The scale and pace of environmental change that climate change will bring over the coming decades will affect the dynamics of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific in ways that Japan and the United States will need to anticipate and adapt to.
In some cases, climate impacts will directly drive relevant change. Sea level rise will affect competing maritime claims in Asia and strengthen the rationale for island-building on low-lying, contested features in the South China Sea. Warmer oceans affected by carbon dioxide-driven ocean acidification will have a severe impact on marine food sources, particularly when combined with overfishing, local pollution, and other strains on fish stocks. More competition over reduced catches could push fishing vessels further from territorial or international waters, and is likely to increase the incidence of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which may in turn lead to new or more serious confrontations involving fishing vessels. Responding to these kinds of changes would require additional constabulary capabilities to uphold and promote the maritime rule of law. These conditions may drive more fishing vessels being armed and acting in a paramilitary capacity, e.g. defending contested maritime claims or engaging in more confrontational behavior.
Climate change will also shape security dynamics in the region via its effects on Japan’s neighbors. Different local strategic actors will experience very different but interlocking issues as a result of climate change. North Korea, for example, on top of its long history of environmental challenges and related famine, faces acute vulnerabilities related to climate impacts on agricultural production. North Korea is not oriented toward mitigating or adapting to these challenges and has limited capacity to build resilience to these threats. Given the nature of the regime, its response to climate change-driven stressors is underlined by an element of unpredictability, as it is unclear how the regime might cope with or respond to such additional stressors in the future.
In the case of China, climate change is a part of the context in which China is planning and expanding its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is seeking to construct infrastructure and strengthen bilateral trade and strategic relationships globally through BRI, including a focus on doing so in the Indo-Pacific. BRI expansion is part of China’s goal of pursuing a broader shift in the regional balance of power, which may indirectly influence its assertiveness in some aspects of its confrontations with Japan, including those that involve Japanese security forces.
At the same time, Japan’s economic interests are entwined with those of its strategic competitors, making economic disruption from climate-related impacts like extreme weather events, such as storms or floods, potentially problematic for Japan’s national interests. Although these are not likely to present direct issues for the Self-Defense Forces’ missions, they form part of the evolving regional geo-economic conditions impacted by climate risks.
There may also be important emerging factors that stem from the response to climate change. For example, one significant trend that will change the strategic environment is the global transition toward renewable energy in response to the climate threat. This is likely to change the strategic value of minerals used in renewable energy generation and storage, in which China is a dominant market player—a fact which has been leveraged in the East China Sea dispute with Japan. In the longer term, it may also factor into the strategic value of the contested maritime territorial claims in the East and South China seas, which are in part driven by their projected offshore fossil fuel resources and consequent implications for energy security. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the East China Sea holds between 1-2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 200 million barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves; the strategic value of these resources will decline if countries choose, for climate change mitigation reasons, not to develop these reserves.
Overall, the impacts of climate change are likely to exacerbate stressors in the region that could undermine security and stability. However, climate change may also present opportunities to strengthen alliances and partnerships, and Japan’s soft power in the region. More frequent and severe climate-driven natural disasters could increase demand for HA/DR operations, which may present an opportunity for Japan to continue to share its deep expertise on disaster management across the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. For example, Japan’s response to Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in the Philippines 2013 included a central role for the JSDF and was the largest mobilization of the JSDF since its founding at the end of WWII, deploying 1,200 members.
On the positive side, these are known threats. Major economies like the United States and Japan therefore have a responsibility to prepare for and prevent them. In fact, given the long and unique history of disaster responses described above and other strengths that the Japan-U.S. alliance brings, both countries are well positioned to enhance collaboration in addressing climate and environmental security threats.
This can include steps focused on both immediate, practical demands and longer-range strategic considerations. In the near term, we recommend expanding abilities to respond to natural disasters and complex emergencies (in which multiple disasters coincide and/or cascade, often confounding normal plans and preparedness) as well as sharing lessons from past crises with other countries. In the longer term, we recommend improving capacities to understand how climate change might shape Japan’s national security interests and the balance of power in the region.
1. Joint military exercises on complex emergencies. Japan and the United States have responded to and prepared for complex emergencies together for years. Both countries and the world are likely to increasingly experience situations in which natural and manmade disasters and risks compound one another in profound ways. Building on Japan’s committed efforts to sharing lessons from the Triple Disaster and its leadership in disaster risk reduction, and in order to ideally position the defense force cooperation element of the alliance, Japan and the United States should include complex emergencies into bilateral training exercises. As this could also provide an avenue for engagement with climate-vulnerable allies and partners, Japan and the United States could consider establishing a joint center of excellence to help lead the international community in preparedness for complex emergencies.
2. Climate security collaboration as a tool of diplomacy. Climate security could be a useful and timely avenue for expanding the Japanese and U.S. presence in South and Southeast Asia, given these subregions’ respective exposures to climate fragility dynamics, which include contentious domestic and transboundary water issues, economic vulnerabilities to extreme weather and sea level rise, and food security vulnerabilities related to agriculture and marine food sources, among others. Alongside relationships stemming from Japanese and U.S. aid to countries in the region, military-to-military diplomacy around disaster risk reduction and resilience could support regional stability.
3. Upgrading military infrastructure and equipment. By considering the likely changes in its domain, the JSDF and U.S. Forces-Japan can consider future operational needs for climate-stressed conditions. For example, Japan’s ability to meet its broader military mission relies on infrastructure that is resilient to climate impacts. Conducting thorough assessments of defense force physical infrastructure, including bases and ports, and evaluating their exposure and vulnerability to climate hazards, would guide investment in upgrading these assets to withstand more extreme heat, storms, water stress, and other climate change impacts. Likewise, evaluating the forces’ equipment for its suitability and operability in a climate-changed future, including naval and coast guard vessels, aircraft, and other essential equipment, can ensure that these assets will continue to meet requirements. The United States can be a useful partner in strengthening climate resilience in this regard, given the U.S. military’s attention to mitigating climate change threats to its own assets.
4. Introducing the “climate security quotient” into regional threat assessments. Looking more broadly, integrating climate risk into analysis of Japan’s evolving strategic environment can support proactive and preventive stances, and avoid the risk of being blindsided by missing important drivers or dynamics. This applies to the traditional national security concerns mentioned above, and potentially to deteriorating security situations as a result of climate change in areas Japan has peacebuilding, conflict prevention, or humanitarian missions. Anticipating and understanding emerging crises in these areas could involve using predictive tools to overlay fragility and climate vulnerability dynamics in security hotspots, guiding prevention and response efforts by civilian and defense entities.
5. Include climate security into Quad discussions, planning, and exercises. It is worth noting that the Quad originated in response to a natural disaster, with Japan, the United States, Australia, and India forming a “core group” of capable responders to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, before being initially carried forward as a regional strategic partnership, in large part by a Japanese interest in strengthening the forum. Given the range of climate security dynamics at play in the Indo-Pacific, incorporating more formal attention to how climate change might affect the region into existing military-to-military cooperation could strengthen the effectiveness of this group.
Unfortunately, Japan and the United States significantly enhancing cooperation regarding environmental and climate security could be hindered by the continuing issues stemming from the legacies of past warfare and the environmental footprint of military bases within Japan. This is especially true in Okinawa given the high concentration of U.S. military personnel and families there. At U.S. military bases around the country, there are serious concerns regarding the effects of military activities on pollution, water supplies, and fisheries, as well as accidents that negatively affect the environment.
Both governments have worked to address these concerns. In preparation for the United States transferring land management back to the Japanese government at some sites, the two sides issued a “Joint Announcement on a Framework Regarding Environmental Stewardship at U.S. Armed Forces Facilities and Areas in Japan” in December 2013. This framework outlined specific measures the countries could take to strengthen environmental standards and coordination regarding such issues as U.S. bases, and was followed by multiple bilateral exchanges.
In fact, consultations with actors in both countries reveal an understanding of the range and severity of the challenges ahead. The United States and Japan will need to continue to work through these issues—to ensure a strong alliance in general, to continue to build the historic collaboration in disaster preparedness and response, and to address the climate security challenges the region faces.
In summary, Japan and the United States will continue to see daunting challenges as climate change, environmental, and resource issues influence the course of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The alliance should build on its unique history of collaboration in disaster preparedness and response in order to mitigate these threats.
Importantly, these issues are inseparable from other security considerations and dynamics, whether they be maritime disputes, nuclear security concerns, displacement and migration of large populations, and relations across the region’s nations. Recognizing these connections, Japan and the United States can make great strides in mitigating these risks and supporting their national interests in the region by enhancing climate and environmental security cooperation.
Rachel Fleishman is a Senior Fellow for the Asia Pacific at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. She brings a wealth of experience in the corporate, non-profit advocacy and government sectors, and is a committed proponent of adopting holistic, systems and future-oriented approaches to climate and sustainability issues.
Shiloh Fetzek is Senior Fellow for International Affairs at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. and is an Associate Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). She has focused on climate change and environment at international affairs and security think tanks since 2007, leading research projects at the IISS and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Christine Parthemore is Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR). In 2016 she was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Tokyo, where she researched Japan’s approach to international civil nuclear cooperation. Her other prior work included serving as the Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs in the U.S. Department of Defense, where she collaborated with the Government of Japan on all-hazards crisis preparedness.
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