Much has been said in recent months about the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, a rebalancing that, though often discussed, remains surprisingly hard to define. However, one key component of Washington’s strategy seems to be taking shape and could gain sharper focus in coming weeks: a new, expanded and more flexible role for Japan’s military.
With U.S. and Japanese armed forces currently conducting a major joint exercise across Japan and in the Pacific, the two governments announced this weekend that they had agreed to consider revisions to the defense cooperation guidelines that, since 1978, have served as a basis for how the two countries address defense matters of common interest.
Since the guidelines were adopted, Japan’s security situation — in fact the entire region — has undergone a dramatic transformation. Back then, U.S. assistance was meant to counter a threat of invasion from the U.S.S.R., an entity which faded into oblivion two decades ago.
The documents, officially known as the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, were revised in 1997 to reflect changes in Japan’s security environment, where North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, rather than the Red Army, were now regarded as the principal threat to its security. To this end, provisions were made to allow for assistance in Japan and “surrounding areas,” a vague reference that some regional critics — Beijing expectedly taking the lead — feared might include Taiwan.
At the heart of the controversy was Seiroku Kajiyama, Japan’s top government spokesman at the time, who said that the revised guidelines would require Tokyo to provide logistical and other noncombatant support to U.S. forces in any emergency in the Korean Peninsula … and the Taiwan Strait. In an effort to appease China on the controversy, Tokyo responded by saying that the revised guidelines did not specify any geographic area to be covered by U.S.-Japan cooperation. Whether Japan’s explanations, along with the attendant ambiguity, succeeded in appeasing Beijing remains in question to this day. However, China’s military development since around that time, with its accrued focus on area denial and the capabilities to target U.S. bases in Japan, seems to indicate that Beijing did not want to risk being caught by surprise with the entry of Japan in a Taiwan scenario.
Those last revisions have lasted until now. Following meetings between Senior Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in Washington last week, the two countries agreed to “deepening U.S.-Japan strategic consultations” and to rethink how the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military would act in a regional dispute. And this time around, there is little doubt as to the nature of the new antagonist.
Japan Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto has already acknowledged that the dynamics favoring revised rules stemmed from the need to deal with an increasingly belligerent China with an increasingly capable military. While Morimoto’s public remarks on the expansion of China’s maritime activities may have been in reference to the push by the People’s Liberation Army Navy for the ability to operate from the “near coast” — its traditional area of operation — to the “near sea” and the “far seas,” it’s difficult to imagine that the mounting dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea did not also play a role in the decision to revise the guidelines. In fact, Japanese officials are reportedly keen on determining how JSDF and U.S. forces would work together to defend the Senkakus, which, depending on how one reads the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, are covered by the agreement.
Unlike the last round of revisions, the proposed changes in the guidelines appear to be custom-made to address the China challenge, which could result in making Beijing even more hostile towards Japan. Any sign that the revisions would invoke a greater role for U.S. forces in the region also risks sparking a strong response from Beijing, which “sternly opposes” any move by Japan inviting “extraterritorial nations,” a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S.
Bilateral talks on revising the guidelines are expected to begin in December, with the Japanese Cabinet making the necessary legal revisions to accommodate the new guidelines. Some Japanese officials have also called for more flexibility for its military, including through revisions that would allow the JSDF to participate in collective self-defense operations overseas, which is banned under Japan’s current constitution. With the U.S. military facing cutbacks and suffering from fatigue from two complex wars since 2001, Washington might be more than amenable to such changes in Japan’s constitution, which it itself helped write upon the conclusion of World War II, another era long gone.