A Closer Look at the New US-Japan Defense Guidelines
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

A Closer Look at the New US-Japan Defense Guidelines


On April 27, the United States and Japan released the new defense guidelines for their alliance, only the second such revision and the first in nearly 20 years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, currently visiting the United States, called the document “historic” in an address before a joint session of Congress. On Wednesday, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi sat down with Yasuhisa Kawamura, the foreign press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to talk about the details of the new guidelines.

The Diplomat: One of the major features of the new Defense Guidelines is the potential for extra-regional cooperation between the United States and Japan. Could you go into more detail about how that might play out in practice?

Yasuhisa Kawamura: The day before yesterday, in New York, the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the United States gathered and agreed to pass the new defense guidelines. The main achievement of issuing the new guidelines is to intensify or reinforce deterrence and responsiveness to the complex new security environment in East Asia and other areas. That is the main achievement and it was recognized by the two leaders [U.S. President Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe] yesterday.

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So you see increasing deterrence as a major goal for the United States and Japan in the region?

Exactly, yes.

In his congressional address, Prime Minister Abe listed three principles for Asia’s maritime domain. Is deterrence the path to take to ensure that those principles are put into action?

I think it should go hand-in-hand for security in East Asia, for the region to to be safe and prosperous. By the three principles, we mean that in maritime affairs, claims should be based on international law. That’s number one. Number two is that no use of force and no coercion to change the status quo. Number three is that when disputes arise, they should be resolved only through peaceful measures. Those are the three principles which Prime Minster Abe spelled out at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last year. This should be applicable to the maritime situation in Asia, and both Japan and the United States stand on the same principles.

So with regards to the new guidelines — I think those three principles are for the prevention of the forceful changing of the status quo. But on top of that, we need to be ready for all situations — from peacetime to contingency situations, all possibilities, we need to be ready for that. The new guidelines provide such readiness.

There have been some media reports that these new guidelines would pave the way for Japan to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea. Were there any specific discussions about that, either between Prime Minister Abe and U.S. leaders or at the two-plus-two meeting in New York?

Actually, the contents to be realized through the new guidelines will vary depending on the situation. The new requirements and the new guidelines should be realized through Japan’s domestic defense-related legislation. There are two tracks: one is Japan’s defense-related legislation, now being taken care of by the Japanese legislative branch. It is based on the July 1 Cabinet decision last year, concerning the change of the interpretation of the constitution regarding collective defense rights. This will now be developed into legislation; the bills will be introduced in this plenary session of the Diet. The other track is the new guidelines. The ministers involved in the new guidelines agreed that the legislative efforts should be in tandem with the new guidelines’ requirement. So both sides are compatible with each other.

Now the new guidelines are completed. Next will come the defense-related legislation, so that the requirements under the new guidelines can be realized. We expect that those general defense-related bills will be introduced in this session.

The implementation of the new guidelines will depend upon the passage of the security legislation. Is there any concern that the security legislation that is passed might hamper the implementation of the defense guidelines?

Right at this moment, the [Japanese] government had a very significant meeting and reached an agreement with the United States government regarding the guidelines. The ministers expressed their thoughts that they should pay full attention to the legislation’s development. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that this will make the case.

Would there need to be a legislative change for Japan to be able to undertake joint South China Sea patrolling with the United States?

Frankly, I’m not quite certain whether this should be one of the many things under the new legislation that Japan could do with the United States. The most typical example of an action for Japan to take would be when the two countries — the Self-Defense Forces of Japan and the U.S. Navy – are jointly guarding against missiles. For example, if a U.S. ship is attacked by a hostile missiles, then under the current arrangement, a Japanese Self-Defense Forces ship couldn’t help the United States. But under the new legislation, under the new defense guidelines, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces could come help the U.S. ship. That will be the difference.

These defense guidelines have attracted a lot of interest in the region from third-party countries, including South Korea, China, and others. Was there any communication between Japan and these third-party countries explaining the content of the guidelines?

Yes, absolutely. We recently had defense authority talks with South Korea and China, respectively. Not only at recent bilateral defense authority talks, but on various occasions in the past, our government explained the purpose of having the new guidelines and the basic thoughts behind it.

Was that received positively in other countries?

We have received very positive understanding from many countries, including Asian countries, especially, for the agenda of “proactive peace in the spirit of international cooperation.” So that is the basic thought behind it. It enjoys broad understanding from the international community.

Is there any movement toward further trilateral cooperation between Japan, the U.S., and regional third parties, such as India?

Take India for example — we recently had trilateral joint naval exercises with India, Japan and the United States, and we will continue to seek other opportunities to do so. That is one good example of trilateral cooperation.

One new area of cooperation mentioned in the guidelines was in the realm of cybersecurity. What do you think U.S.-Japan cooperation on cybersecurity would actually look like?

It’s a little bit hard to predict what kind of cooperation will take place in the area of cyberspace, because it’s up to the experts. But one of the most imminent security challenges for Japan and the United States and the rest of the world is the cyber area, so we underlined  cyber cooperation as one of the priority areas. I think they discussed it at yesterday’s summit talks. It’s included in the joint vision statement. Bilateral experts will continue discussions on how the two countries can best cooperate to meet with the challenges in cyberspace.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how China fits into the new defense guidelines. Would you say that concern about China’s behavior was a major factor in crafting these guidelines?

I have to say first that the new defense guidelines are not targeting one particular country. The main purpose of having the new defense guidelines is to reinforce deterrence and to be ready for any circumstances that might affect the security and the safety of our peoples. But having said that, the two leaders agreed yesterday that any attempt to change the status quo by force should be checked and deterred, so I think this notion should be understood very clearly by the regional players.

Another area where the U.S. and Japan want to increase cooperation is combating terrorism. Is there any potential for U.S.-Japan cooperation in the Middle East, for example in the fight against ISIL?

Actually, after the ISIL hostage crisis involving Japanese nationals, Japan and the United State and other like-minded countries had a very extensive and very meaningful conference in Washington, D.C. So we’ve found a very common strategy for how to contend with ISIL and other terrorists. One area is that we have to remove the social conditions which would nurture such extremism or terrorism, to eradicate those social factors in societies and communities. Japan, for its part, has already done so much for providing humanitarian assistance to help support refugees in moderate Middle East countries. In the same way, the United States will do its part to help them. This is the common ground for Japan and the United States.

We couldn’t participate in the coalition forces’ bombardment because we have a constitutional restraint. But we will continue to commit ourselves to providing even greater non-military humanitarian assistance to the area.

Even after the new defense legislation is passed, would Japan still be prevented from participating in coalition air strikes?

We need to be very careful about what situations would necessitate Japan to take part. But generally speaking, we couldn’t  participate in the aerial bombardment as a coalition member.

What about providing logistical support for such an operation?

We should wait until the legislation is completed, then we can have a view of the range and the concrete details of what is possible.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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