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Commentary: Japan to make major security policy shift

  • 2015-03-23 15:00:00
  • , Asahi
  • Translation

(Asahi: March 21, 2015 – p. 2)


 By Hisashi Ishimatsu, Taketsugu Sato


 The ruling parties’ consultations on security legislation on March 20 resulted in an agreement to expand Self-Defense Forces overseas operations substantially. Behind this major shift in security policy is the Abe administration’s desire to meet the U.S.’s expectations in countering the threat posed by China’s rapid military rise in order to deepen the bilateral security alliance. However, there are also subtle differences in the two countries’ positions.


 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on March 20 that the purpose of the review of security legislations is to “fulfill the government’s responsibility in its commitment to defend Japan’s territory, territorial seas, and airspace resolutely, based on a sober assessment of the changes in the security environment.”


 Abe had China in mind. The Abe administration’s security policies are all focused on how to respond to the military buildup being undertaken by China, now the number economic power in the world.


 So far, Japan has repeatedly expanded the SDF’s operations in response to U.S. demands during the Cold War, with regard to the Korean peninsula crisis, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It has expanded the scope of the SDF’s operations by legislating several “special measures laws” with limited duration, deployment location, and authorized activities.


 However, this time, Japan took the initiative of suggesting the review of security legislation and the first revision of the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines in 18 years.


 This is based on the thinking that the only way to change the situation where Chinese government ships keep intruding into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands since the islands’ nationalization in September 2012 is to underscore the “deepening” of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. in order to enhance the deterrence provided by the U.S. forces.


 During the ruling parties’ consultations, the government proposed allowing the SDF to protect U.S. ships as part of the response to the “gray zone situations” short of an actual armed attack. By enabling seamless support for the U.S. military from surveillance and monitoring operations in peacetime to responding to contingencies, Japan wants to draw fuller cooperation from U.S. forces while issuing an oblique warning to China.


 There will be a drastic revision of the law on contingencies in Japan’s periphery, which is based on the existing Defense Cooperation Guidelines, and the concept of “contingencies in Japan’s periphery,” which effectively serves as a geographic restriction, will be dropped. Logistic support for the U.S. and other foreign forces will be possible for all situations recognized by the government to have a “critical impact” on Japan. This is meant to have the SDF take up some of U.S. forces’ responsibilities even though its equipment and organization are not comparable to those of the U.S. side.


 If laws are adopted on the basis of the ruling parties’ agreement, the scope of logistic support for the U.S. and other foreign forces will be expanded, and rules on the use of weapons in peacekeeping operations (PKO) will also be relaxed. The SDF will also be able to participate in humanitarian and reconstruction aid and security operations by U.S.-led coalitions of the willing.


 The authorization of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense by the cabinet decision last July is also reflected in these basic policies. The concept of “new contingencies” that “threaten Japan’s survival and pose a clear danger to fundamentally overturn the people’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” is being introduced. A framework for the limited exercise of the collect defense right is also being proposed.


 With the basic policies on the security legislations in place, the Japanese and U.S. governments will engage in vigorous consultations on the revision of the Defense Cooperation Guidelines. They will aim at reaching agreement before Abe’s visit to the U.S. in late April.


 The U.S. is being forced to make deep cuts in its defense budget due to fiscal difficulties. It warmly welcomes the proposed security legislation that will enable Japan to take over some military roles. It is particularly keen on the legislation of permanent bills to allow the deployment of the SDF for logistic support to the U.S. forces. This will allow the U.S. military to plan global operations premised on support from the SDF.


 The U.S. also has great expectations regarding the SDF’s minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East as part of its exercise of the collective defense right. While the government and Komeito do not see eye to eye on whether the SDF’s deployment is possible, the U.S. believes that the Maritime SDF’s excellent skills are indispensable.


 The Obama administration is adopting a strategy of “rebalancing” to Asia to counter the Chinese military’s maritime advances. It is also expecting Japan to play a role in this.


 The U.S. military is promoting forward deployment in Asia. It regards the new Defense Cooperation Guidelines as the centerpiece of the rebalancing strategy. It has also indicated its hope for the Maritime SDF’s reconnaissance operations, currently limited to waters near Japan, to expand to the South China Sea.


 However, Japan and the U.S. do not agree completely on the expansion of the SDF’s overseas missions.


 The Abe administration hopes to strengthen Japan-U.S. cooperation in dealing with gray zone situations under the basic policies, with responding to a situation relating to the Japan-China dispute over the Senkaku Islands in mind. However, the U.S. is wary of getting embroiled in what might develop into a military conflict between the two countries. Some extent of uncertainty remains as to whether the U.S. forces will provide the military support the Abe administration is hoping for.


 On the other hand, with regard to U.S. expectations on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, Japan asserts that this will be “very limited” and “it will not be good for the alliance if the U.S. expects too much,” according to a government source. It is possible that such differences between the two sides may emerge in future consultations on the concrete forms of support. (Slightly abridged)

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