Japan is exploring the possibility of postponing until at least early next year a planned revision of bilateral defense cooperation guidelines with the United States, given the need to keep the ruling coalition aligned over new security policy legislation, government sources said Thursday.
One option being considered within the government is to wait until around May to prevent the controversial issue —legalizing the use of the nation’s right to collective self-defense — from having a negative impact on nationwide local elections slated for April.
It is still unclear, however, whether the United States will agree to change the current end-of-year deadline for the envisioned revision, for domestic reasons, the sources said.
Japan and the United States are expected to discuss the time frame when senior government officials from both countries meet in Washington in early October to prepare an interim report on the first revision in 17 years, according to the sources.
Following its constitutional reinterpretation in July to allow the country to come to the aid of an ally under attack, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to accelerate the revision work for the defense guidelines and prepare a new legal framework that would accommodate the major postwar security policy change.
Still, the government has decided to wait until the Diet is in its regular session, probably in May, to submit relevant bills, partly because the security policy change has proven unpopular among the public.
Abe suffered a drop in his approval ratings immediately after his Cabinet reinterpreted the Constitution in a decision in July instead of amending it through a constitutional change.
The Liberal Democratic Party and ally Komeito are now expected to resume coalition talks on security legislation as early as November. But keeping the coalition aligned on the matter may prove difficult, given that the LDP’s junior coalition partner remains cautious about expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces.
The government has thus concluded that rushing to revise the guidelines before the legislative move could cause a rift between the ruling parties and make the foundation of the Abe government unstable, the sources said.
The defense cooperation guidelines specify the role and mission of the SDF and the U.S. military under the long-standing security alliance. The previous revision was made in 1997 to better cope with North Korea’s missile threat.
Tokyo and Washington agreed last October to update the guidelines and have since decided to include Japan’s decision on exercising the right to collective self-defense, or defending an ally like the United States should it come under armed attack even when Japan is not threatened.
Amid the rise of an assertive China, Abe has said a stronger bilateral alliance between the two countries will serve as a deterrent in the region. Japan and China are at odds over the sovereignty of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu.
So far, Japan and the United States have agreed to include scenarios based on the Cabinet decision in July, such as one envisioning Japan intercepting ballistic missiles and defending U.S. ships in international waters. But they have yet to decide on details, according to the sources.
“We do not need to hurry. It’d be realistic to put it off until next year to revise the guidelines,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.
Before the Cabinet decision, Japan maintained that it possesses the right to collective self-defense under the U.N. Charter but cannot exercise it as the Constitution only allows “the minimum” use of force for self-defense.