SINGAPORE – The United States on Saturday backed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to reshape the role played by Japan’s military, delivering its strongest comments of support so far.
In Singapore on Friday, Abe told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that Japan would become a more active player in maintaining regional security as he sets about altering the Self-Defense Forces’ rules of engagement.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told the forum the U.S. supports Abe’s effort to “reorient its collective self-defense posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and resilient regional order.”
To complement Japan’s efforts, the United States and Japan “have begun revising our defense guidelines for the first time in nearly two decades,” Hagel told delegates at the annual conference.
“This will ensure that our alliance evolves to reflect the shifting security environment, and the growing capabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces,” Hagel said.
Hagel also slammed what he termed China’s unilateral and provocative acts around the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea. The uninhabited chain is administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing.
“We made clear last November that the U.S. military would not abide by China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, including over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands,” Hagel said. “As President (Barack) Obama clearly stated in Japan last month (in April), the Senkaku Islands fall under our mutual defense treaty with Japan.”
Nationalist leader Abe opened the forum by saying that Japan, caught up in territorial disputes with both China and South Korea, would take a more proactive stance in promoting peace in Asia. Laying out a vision of Japan as a counterweight to the growing might of China, Abe offered help to regional partners “to ensure security of the seas and skies.”
“Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain,” Abe said.
Abe also pledged to support Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with China, reiterating that the use of force and intimidation to change the status quo cannot be justified.
The speech, the first by a Japanese prime minister at the forum, came amid a recent spike in regional tensions as China and Vietnam continue to clash over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, and Tokyo and Beijing raise the aerial ante in their dispute over the Senkakus in the East China Sea. Abe expressed hope that a code of conduct will be put in place in the South China Sea soon, and said Japan is studying the possibility of providing patrol ships to Vietnam.
Tokyo and Beijing remain at odds over the sovereignty of the Senkakus. Last weekend, Chinese fighter jets tried to intimidate SDF surveillance planes in the area by making very close approaches to them in an area where China’s air defense identification zone overlaps with Japanese air space.
To avoid contingencies in the sea and skies, Abe urged China to keep a promise it made in 2007 to set up a communications mechanism and pursue dialogue.
Abe is trying to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities as part of his plan to broadly remodel the nation’s security apparatus to better address China starting to throw its weight around and North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programs. At the same time, he is strengthening bilateral ties not just with Japan’s top security ally, the U.S., but also with Southeast Asian countries and Australia to counterbalance the rise of China.
Japan invaded much of Asia during World War II, including China and Southeast Asia, and its troops committed atrocities against soldiers and civilians alike. After losing the war in 1945, however, its forces were stripped of the right to wage war by the Allied Powers, which drafted and imposed a new Constitution that nullified the emperor’s divine status.
The SDF, formed after the Occupation, have a purely defensive mandate and haven’t fired a single shot in battle. Abe said in his speech that “close consultations” were underway in Japan to reshape its pacifist posture.
Chinese state media responded by saying Abe had “played with international law to advance his thinly veiled nationalist goals” in the address.