Mandatory spending cuts in the federal budget, known as sequestration, have entered into force in the United States.

Up until last summer, it had been believed that a compromise that would make such cuts unnecessary would surely be struck sooner or later between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Perhaps in consideration of the strong will of President Barack Obama, who would not yield on the health care insurance reforms, the Democrats refused to make concessions on Social Security and medical care issues. The Republicans, staunch believers in small government, would not agree to a tax increase. It is utterly unpredictable what the future will bring.

The automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will most seriously affect the U.S. defense budget. According to an assessment conducted recently by four think tanks, including the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), reduction of two to four aircraft carriers, seven to nine cruisers, and four to 14 destroyers will become necessary.

Even if a compromise is reached to halve the spending cut, a deterioration in war potential would still be unavoidable. Although the Obama administration is committed to the “pivot to Asia” policy, it can do only so much to reduce its military presence in other regions of the world. In any event, the new U.S. war potential after the sequestration might not be enough to deal with the change in the military balance arising out of the dramatic expansion of China’s naval and air capabilities.

The assessment by the four think tanks expressed the hope that the gap to be created by the reduction of the U.S. military presence would be filled by U.S. allies. The report welcomes Japan’s plan to increase its submarine fleet from 16 to 22 submarines.

I believe the time has finally come for the exercise of the right to collective self-defense to become a vital issue in the U.S.-Japan alliance. This issue may be utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but the official position of Japan has been this: Although Japan is entitled to the right to collective self-defense under the U.N. Charter duly ratified by the Japanese government, it is forbidden to exercise that right by its current pacifist Constitution. Settlement of this issue will enable Japanese forces to work together with their U.S. ally not only for the self-defense of Japan but also in a broader international theater.

The U.S. Navy’s burden would be reduced if an Aegis destroyer of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) participated in the patrol task force mission that the U.S. 7th Fleet conducts from time to time on the “oil line” between Yokosuka, Japan, and the Persian Gulf. The addition of a helicopter destroyer would further reduce the U.S. burden.

In the Atlantic, the Canadian Navy has already participated in U.S. naval task forces. JMSDF could do so today.

Japan’s plan to expand its submarine fleet is of course welcomed by the U.S. It would be even more helpful for the U.S. if the JMSDF expanded patrol operations by its P-3C anti-submarine bombers from around their base in Djibouti, northeast Africa, to the entire oil line region. Doing that would integrate and cement U.S.-Japan defense cooperation.

In the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Navy established a naval base in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the Iran-Iraq War erupted in the Middle East, I was director general for foreign relations at the Japan Defense Agency (now the Ministry of Defense). I had a chance to talk with a senior officer stationed at the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka.

According to this officer, patrolling the oil line region was a taxing operation. During summer, the temperature on a ship’s deck, where crew members perform patrol duty, reaches well above 50 degrees Celsius. It is so hot that air conditioners in those days were of little use even at night. As Japan was in the middle of a high economic growth period, every ship the U.S. patrol ships encountered was a Japanese tanker.

The person with whom I spoke said that, as a senior officer, he understood the political complications surrounding Japan’s dispatch of JMSDF ships overseas but that ordinary U.S. sailors did not. He said they wondered why Japanese ships didn’t take part in patrolling. He merely expressed the wish that the Japanese side be made aware of this disgruntlement among U.S. sailors.

Since Japan is not allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense — which is the right to protect ships of other countries as well as Japanese ships — the JMSDF, even when it joins a patrol mission, cannot deploy its ships in the defense of those belonging to the U.S., much less those belonging to a third party like Indonesia.

Moreover, there are no genuine “Japanese transport ships” to begin with. Most of the ships hired by Japanese oil companies are either Panamanian- or Liberian-registered. Protection of those ships could be construed as an exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

In those days, the mere idea of Japan being suspected of exercising the right to collective self-defense was enough to discourage Japan from conducting any operation that could be construed as such. The situation was so absurd that it was only natural that American sailors, or any outsider, did not understand it.

It was in those days that even China, facing the Soviet threat, demanded that Japan spend 3 percent of its gross domestic product on its defense budget. Because the Soviet Navy ships were appearing even in Cam Ranh Bay, China must have genuinely welcomed Japan’s defense of sea lanes.

Had the JMSDF joined the patrol of the oil transport routes 30 years ago and remained on the team, it would have made crystal clear to people in coastal areas, including Southeast Asia, that the JMSDF was a highly disciplined and efficient force that was a far cry from the navy that some people feared would invade the region again. Undoubtedly Japan’s participation in the patrols would have had the effect of boosting trust in Japan among the very people who had regarded Japan as politically and militarily impotent, despite its tremendous economic contributions to the region since the end of World War II.

Although the chance for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense seemed to have been lost, sequestration of the U.S. military budget has revived it. This time Japan should not miss the opportunity.

It is expected in Japan that the issue of exercising the right to collective self-defense will be settled now that the coalition parties of the Abe government have won a majority of seats in both houses of the Diet. If the issue does arise, the top priority should be placed on letting Japan fully participate in the patrol of oil transport routes.

Hisahiko Okazaki served as Japan’s ambassador to Thailand from 1988-1992 and is currently president of the Okazaki Institution. This article is a translation based on Sankei Shimbun’s July 10 Seiron column. Some revisions were added by the author.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.