The passage of the new security laws over strong public objection satisfies long-standing U.S. desires for Japan to be more of a regional military player and will strengthen defense cooperation with countries like Australia.
But domestic political concerns and worries about relations with China and South Korea are likely to place constraints on just how far Japan goes in actually expanding its military presence, Japanese and foreign experts say.
“The most tangible result of the new laws will likely be closer coordination between the Self-Defense Forces, the U.S. military, and other militaries in the region,” says Tobias Harris, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, D.C., and an expert on Japanese politics. “The new laws raise the ceiling for the SDF to conduct potentially lethal operations overseas, but they by no means obligate the SDF to come to the aid of allies or participate in coalitions.”
He said the laws’ unpopularity will force Abe and future prime ministers to exercise caution when deciding on SDF deployments overseas. “Raising the legal ceiling is one thing. Actually sending troops abroad with the possibility that they might use force is another matter entirely,” Harris said.
Garren Mulloy, an associate professor at Daito Bunka University who has studied the SDF’s overseas operations, says the greatest area for change under the new laws is in the Ground Self-Defense Force, while the greatest scope for cooperation with the U.S. will be in intelligence.
“For decades, the GSDF has lacked a senior partner to mentor it, with limited U.S. Army and U.S. marine cooperation. Now, with the striving for amphibious capability, the marines have become the partner of choice and this has opened up new training and operational possibilities for the GSDF, and by extension, greater cooperation with the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy,” Mulloy said.
However, he added, this issue may not be as important as it seems. “Defending an island is a whole lot easier than retaking one, and to undertake a Falklands-style operation may simply not be feasible.”
On intelligence, he added, greater cooperation will be limited by the lack of Japanese capacity on all levels.
“Japan won’t found a Japan Central Intelligence Agency due to bureaucratic turf wars, but they might get a director of national security intelligence, possibly feeding into the new National Security Council, or possibly reporting directly to the prime minister’s office,” he said.
The new laws are also expected to impact Japan’s relationship with Australia, as well as the trilateral relationship with the U.S.
“The variable in the Australia-Japan relationship is the U.S., but both countries want to ensure that the current, U.S.-led order in the Asian region continues, and the new laws will help facilitate this,” said Michael Heazle, an associate professor of political science at Griffith University in Brisbane who specializes in Japan’s foreign policy. “The U.S. is militarily overstretched, especially in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, so it’s demanding countries like Australia and Japan do more.”
Australia’s ASIS foreign intelligence service is already training Japanese intelligence officers, The Australian newspaper reported in March.
While the U.S. and Australia welcome the new laws, expanded activities by the SDF could create tensions with China over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a Nagoya University of Foreign Studies professor who is an expert on Japan-China relations.
The uninhabited Senkaku Islands are also claimed by China, which call them Diaoyu. Beijing regularly sends government ships to the contiguous zone surrounding Japanese territorial waters, while Japan Coast Guard boats conduct patrols in the area.
Kawamura argued that if Tokyo steps up its efforts to protect the islands by sending in the SDF, China may feel forced to respond with military force.
“That would raise concerns about possible risky behavior due to an escalating military distrust of each other, creating a security dilemma,” Kawamura said.
For the U.S., which is obligated under the bilateral security treaty to defend Japan in the case of an attack, such a scenario is unwelcome.
“The U.S. hopes its allies like Japan take on more of a burden-sharing role in regards to security issues Washington is involved with. However, it doesn’t want to get involved in a possible conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku issue, because it doesn’t directly touch upon U.S. interests,” Kawamura added.
But the legislation also carries something other than legal force itself: a stronger presence.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday the changes aim to shore up Japan’s deterrent power by signaling a “fully functional” alliance with the U.S.
“Discouraging the other party from stealing our territory if there is a chance — this is what deterrence is all about,” Abe said.
As to South Korea, Yuki Asaba, a professor of South Korean politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture graduate school, said the South Korean public either sees the legislation as a sign of Japan’s drift to the right or, at an extreme, renewed militarism, but that its enactment is not bad news for the Korean government.
Asaba said smooth trilateral cooperation with Japan and the U.S. should be welcomed in Seoul for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. The legislation enables Tokyo to exercise the right to collective self-defense in situations that threaten Japan’s survival.
Abe cited defending U.S. naval vessels in case of an emergency on the peninsula as an example of Japan acting in collective self-defense.
It also allows Japan to provide logistical support to the U.S. and other forces in the event of a situation that would gravely affect Japan’s peace and security.