For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, exercising the right to collective self-defense will help Japan become what he calls a “normal” country on a more equal footing with the United States.

His push comes as Japan and the U.S. are scheduled to revise their defense guidelines by the end of this year for the first time in 17 years.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel welcomed Abe’s efforts earlier this month during his visit to Japan ahead of Wednesday’s arrival of President Barack Obama. The U.S. has been calling on Japan and other allies to match their military contributions to the size of their economies as the world’s largest economy cuts back on its military spending.

Yet a U.S. endorsement does not give Abe more political capital to go ahead with the reinterpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. He still must persuade his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, as well as the public, of the need to do so, amid fears of future entanglements in international conflicts.

Abe also has to engage in a very delicate balancing act to ensure that the new defense guidelines don’t alarm South Korea and possibly harm their trilateral partnership with the U.S.

The revision of the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation is the second effort since the first guidelines were adopted in 1978 to readjust what is often characterized as an “asymmetrical alliance.” Under the terms, the U.S. is mostly responsible for forward deployment while Japan provides logistical support by hosting U.S. bases — an arrangement often characterized as a “free ride” for Japan under the American security umbrella.

The first guidelines were a response to the Soviet Union’s expansion of its naval power in East Asia. The 1978 guidelines clarified the roles of the two nations, resulting in Japan being in charge of protecting the lines communication out to 1,000 nautical miles at sea. The two nations also agreed to seek other partners for cooperation in East Asia.

The two allies revised the guidelines in 1997 against the backdrop of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Japan was tasked with providing more rear-area support to U.S. forces in emergencies in areas surrounding Japan, namely the Korean Peninsula. But the pacifist Constitution prevents Japan from directly assisting U.S. combat operations, unless the mission is directly connected to Japan’s own defense. Japan also cannot operate in areas where combat might occur.

The latest revision due out later this year will likely focus on North Korea’s enhancement of missile and nuclear weapons technology, China’s rising military might and the emergence of nontraditional threats in cyberspace and outer space.

“The whole idea is to build deeper integration in certain areas that Japan is comfortable with but do broaden the range of activities so that there is not such a wall between what Japan can contribute and then what follow-on activities the U.S. forces might do,” said James Schoff, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Asia program. Schoff served as senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2010 to 2012.

Collective self-defense will help Japan overcome limitations preventing closer and more efficient assistance of the U.S. in combat operations. But it is likely that Japan will exercise the right within a limited scope, such as defending U.S. vessels under attack and engaging in mine-sweeping operations in combat areas.

While the two previous guidelines focused on location and mission, Schoff said capability should be the new linchpin, allowing Japan to support frontline U.S. operations directly.

Schoff said the question is whether Japan can provide intelligence surveillance or reconnaissance (ISR) to help defending an area of allied operation or be able to take out a missile site in North Korea, for example.

He said Japan can provide reconnaissance to the U.S. or develop complementary electronic capabilities to protect against GPS jamming or interfere with enemy communications by investing more in ISR, such as surveillance drones and related technologies.

Japan’s inclination to mission- and location-oriented cases reflects efforts by the LDP to appease New Komeito, which is against either revising or reinterpreting Article 9.

Yet the party is not completely against assuming a more proactive defensive role. Indeed, high-ranking members of New Komeito said they are open to discussing possible scenarios but remain opposed to Japan assuming more responsibilities in the name of collective self-defense.

The party has already shown its support for a bigger security role without revising or reinterpreting Article 9. In 1992, it helped pass a law allowing Self-Defense Forces personnel to be dispatched on peacekeeping operations.

The conservative prime minister also faces the tough challenge of not alarming South Korea with Japan’s evolving defensive posture. The relationship between Japan and South Korea has already soured over Abe’s historical views, but the trilateral partnership with the U.S. is crucial to counter the potential North Korean nuclear threat.

American observers agree that Japan needs to explain its defense reforms to South Korea if it wants to expand its security role. South Korea fears a resurgence of militarism that will bring Japanese forces to the Korean Peninsula, a notion detrimental to trilateral cooperation.

The Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral talks on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague last month, followed by Japan-South Korea bilateral talks among high-level officials last week, put the focus on the North Korean nuclear threat. Yet Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said that both Japan and South Korea have to focus on facts rather than perceptions.

“There is nothing threatening about collective self-defense for Japan’s neighbors. It needs to be done but now it may face an even more uphill battle because of the way it’s been depicted by its neighbors in part given Mr. Abe’s and others’ comments and his visit to Yasukuni Shrine,” said Klingner, who served as deputy division chief for Korea at the CIA from 1996 to 2001.

Abe has toned down his nationalist rhetoric since his visit to the shrine last December came under fire. In particular, the U.S. expressed its “disappointment.” Abe said he wouldn’t visit Yasukuni again, at least during the shrine’s spring festival, although he offered a “masakaki” tree to the shrine Monday.

Abe also said his government won’t revise the 1993 Kono statement, which admitted for the first time that “comfort women” were recruited against their will, and at times administrative and military personnel directly took part in their recruitment.

Klingner said that any nationalistic actions perceived as a resurgence of Japanese militarism would only benefit China, which hopes to weaken the U.S-Japan alliance and the trilateral partnership with South Korea.

“Unfortunately, Tokyo is doing China’s foreign policy for it. And by acting in a certain manner, it allows people to project onto Japan characteristics and tensions and objectives which are not correct,” said Klingner. It allows certainly China to deliver its own aggressive actions. And it also allows China to drive the wedge between Korea and the U.S., and Korea and Japan.”

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