By political reporter Hiroyuki Ishida
It is now necessary for the government to draw up concrete guidelines for responding to possible contingencies involving the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is adopting a policy of military expansion. It will draft a “joint defense strategy” for the response of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as well as a Japan-U.S. “joint operational plan.” However, such issues as Japan’s small defense budget by international standards and how to build a relationship with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will also have to be resolved.
The passage of Chinese military aircraft between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island last Dec. 10 almost triggered a conflict. A similar incident also occurred in June 2016.
The SDF fears that “China may use an accident as an excuse to provoke a full-fledged military conflict.”
The “joint defense strategy” premised on conflict with the PLA is a means to reinforce Japan’s defense capability.
While joint defense strategies have been formulated in the past, these merely took the form of internal SDF documents. This time, a contingency plan will be drawn up under the “direct supervision” of the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Official Residence) which will involve the National Security Secretariat, and this is aimed at more effective integrated SDF operations.
The U.S. also has serious concerns about China’s military threat, and the formulation of the “Japan-U.S joint operational plan” is a manifestation of such concerns. It attaches great importance to cooperation with the SDF since the Nansei Islands, which include Okinawa, where the main combat units of the Marines are deployed, represent its beachhead in Asia and the Pacific.
The Japanese and U.S. governments drafted the new Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines in April 2015 and the Japanese security laws came into effect in March 2016, thus establishing the framework for cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. forces in peacetime. According to a Defense Ministry source, “issues relating to personnel, equipment, and transport of materials under different scenarios” are being discussed in the process of formulating the joint operational plan.
A matter of great concern to the Abe cabinet is how the new Trump administration will behave. Although a senior Foreign Ministry official reckons that the U.S. “may deal with China more sternly than the Obama administration,” Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. forces and review the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. His policy is unpredictable.
While President Barack Obama stated for the first time in April 2014 that the Senkaku Islands are covered by Article 5 of the Security Treaty, which stipulates the U.S.’s obligation to defend Japan, Trump has been unwilling to make any clear commitment on what the U.S. will do if the Senkakus are attacked.
A rift in the Japan-U.S. alliance will heighten the risks. The Japanese government wants to strengthen bilateral cooperation. (Slightly abridged)