WASHINGTON – The United States does not expect the Self-Defense Forces to use force overseas, despite the enactment early Saturday of new security legislation enabling the expansion of their role abroad, according to a Washington-based expert.
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said in an interview that the legislation will help U.S. leaders understand what the SDF can and cannot do abroad.
Smith also said the U.S. and Japan should focus not just on security challenges but also other issues, such as the speedy conclusion of a sweeping Pacific trade pact, to further cement the bilateral alliance.
Security-related laws were created or revised in the Diet after the ruling bloc, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pushed ahead with them despite growing public opposition.
The legal changes will help U.S. policymakers more clearly perceive “what Japan can and cannot do in terms of humanitarian disaster relief and other kinds of global crisis responses,” Smith said.
Regarding public concerns that Japan could engage in activity contrary to the war-renouncing Constitution in helping the United States and other allies, Smith said some people in Japan may misunderstand what the U.S. government expects from the country.
“I don’t think there’s anybody here in Washington who is urging Japan or its military to use force in other countries,” she said. “The United States . . . is interested in having the U.S. and Japanese militaries prepare for a variety of operations in and around Japan.”
The latest changes will allow Japan to use the right of collective self-defense, or helping allies even when the country is not directly attacked, something successive governments had said the pacifist Constitution bars Japan from doing.
Smith urged Japanese leaders to work harder to gain public support for the new legislation, given that recent polls have indicated many are still critical or skeptical about it.
“There is a lack of confidence” among policymakers in Tokyo over the matter of how they can ensure civilian control under the new legislation, Smith said. “It’s a real question about the mechanisms of civilian oversight in a collective self-defense scenario.”
But the government has failed to answer the question, and that is why many in the public “still are not sure” why Abe is arguing about the need for the policy reform, she added. “For a lot of us here in Washington the intensity of the skepticism on the part of the public is worrisome, frankly.”
Smith said the U.S. and Japanese governments should also work to conclude the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership pact as soon as possible to further strengthen their alliance.
“The next issue . . . is TPP,” she said. “Once we get into an election cycle it’s going to get harder and harder” to conclude the deal among the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries.
It remains uncertain whether the countries can deliver before the political focus in the United States fully shifts to the 2016 presidential election.