Japan’s Patriot-missile transfer to U.S. stuns Indo-Pacific watchers

Japan's decision to ship Patriot missiles to the U.S. to help backfill stocks of air-defense systems for Ukraine has surprised analysts focusing on Indo-Pacific affairs.

Japan’s decision to ship Patriot missiles to the U.S. to help backfill stocks of air-defense systems for Ukraine has surprised analysts focusing on Indo-Pacific affairs.

Many have questioned the rationale of taking weapons out of the Indo-Pacific for a battle in Europe when the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has said all along that China is the pacing threat.

The transfer of Patriots was a request from the U.S. side. This suggests that the Biden administration has concluded that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent. While many in Washington agree to that assessment, some oppose shifting attention away from the Indo-Pacific.

The government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida “has made a fundamental error in going along with the Biden administration’s prioritization of Europe,” said Elbridge Colby, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development.

“We have sent weapons that we cannot replace in a timely fashion, we have distracted the attention of the defense industrial base and we’ve spent over $100 billion on Ukraine,” said Colby, co-founder and principal at Washington strategic think tank The Marathon Initiative.

“Japan cannot say, ‘We should go along with Ukraine and we’ll wait our turn.’ Asia needs to come first,” Colby, said. “That is the rhetorical position of the U.S., but it has to be the actual position.”

Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called it a “shortsighted decision,” both by Japan and the U.S.

“Most assessments suggest that Japan doesn’t have enough air defense to defend its own air bases in the event of a Chinese attack. To draw down its stocks further incurs a significant risk,” she said.

Last year, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced that the country currently only holds around 60% of interceptor missiles needed to defend the country.

To conform to its pacifist constitution, Japan maintains that such weapons cannot be shipped to countries at war. With this transfer of Patriots to the U.S., “the destination is the U.S. and the end user is the U.S. military,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Under these rules, the Patriots provided by Tokyo cannot go directly to Ukraine. But by backfilling U.S. inventories, it offers the U.S. more freedom to send American-made air-defense systems to Ukraine.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement Friday welcoming Japan’s easing of arms export restrictions.

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