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An interim report that Japan and the United States has issued for revising the guidelines on bilateral defense cooperation shows that geographical restrictions on the activities of the Self-Defense Forces in supporting the operation of the U.S. military will be removed and that the scope of the SDF’s missions will greatly expand — a major departure from the SDF’s current main task of defending Japan against an enemy attack.

While the report does not cite specifics on how Japanese and U.S. forces will cooperate under collective self-defense arrangements, it says the Abe administration’s Cabinet decision to reinterpret the Constitution to lift the long-standing ban on Japan engaging in such an operation will be “appropriately reflected” in the revised guidelines due out early next year.

The government plans to submit legislation to the Diet next year to flesh out the major changes in Japan’s defense posture as outlined in the decision by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet in July. But before the legislations are debated in the legislature, Tokyo and Washington are moving toward changing the scope of bilateral defense cooperation through talks between foreign and defense bureaucrats.

The issue needs to be taken up in the Diet in open discussions before such changes will be turned into a fait accompli between the two governments.

The interim report, released last Wednesday, underlines the Japan-U.S. alliance as a platform for international cooperation to “make positive contributions” to the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. It specifically says that in view of the implications of the evolving regional and global security environment, “the two governments will expand the scope of cooperation to reflect the global nature of the Japan-U.S. Alliance.”

This is a concept that far exceeds the current framework of Japan-U.S. cooperation under the bilateral security treaty, which says that Japan and the U.S. consider an enemy attack against either party in territories under Japan’s jurisdiction as a “common danger” and will act to meet the danger, and that the U.S. will use its military bases in Japan “for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan” and “international peace and security in the Far East.”

As examples of Japan-U.S. cooperation for regional and global security, the report lists peacekeeping operations; international humanitarian assistance/disaster relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support and noncombatant evacuation operations.

Laws enacted so far to pave way for the SDF’s overseas missions, including the special pieces of legislation on logistical support for multinational forces in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and reconstruction support in the wake of the Iraq War, limited SDF activities to areas where combat activities are not taking place. But such geographical restrictions — which were also mentioned in the current guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation updated in 1997 — are missing in the interim report.

“Maritime security” to be included in the revised guidelines could also justify Japan sending minesweepers to the Strait of Hormuz if the government decides that mines planted there threaten Japan’s oil imports — an action Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to carry out.

As for bilateral cooperation in the defense of Japan, the report refers to “persistent and emerging international threats” that can have “a serious and immediate impact” on Japan’s security, and says that there are cases that require “swift and robust responses” by Japanese and U.S. forces even when an armed attack on Japan has yet to take place.

To cope with such a security environment, it says, the two governments will take measures to ensure Japan’s security “in all phases, seamlessly, from peacetime to contingencies.”

What is expressed here is completely different from the current defense cooperation guidelines, which mainly envision a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. During such a contingency, which does not involve a direct armed attack on Japan, use of force by the SDF is ruled out and its activities are to be limited to logistical support for the U.S. forces in noncombat areas in and around Japan.

However, the interim report abolishes the distinct phases in bilateral defense cooperation — (1) peacetime, (2) contingency around Japan and (3) direct attack on Japan — and calls on the two forces to take necessary steps “in a seamless manner in all phases” including “asset protection” — a phrase that refers to defense equipment.

If the revised guidelines are to follow this line, it could become possible for the SDF to provide protection to U.S. military vessels and aircraft — possibly involving the use of force — in situations where an armed attack on Japan has yet to take place.

The report does not give concrete examples of Japan-U.S. military cooperation under collective self-defense, which the Abe administration is moving to make possible — pending subsequent legislation — by reinterpreting the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. But the report clearly states that the revised guidelines will reflect the July 1 Cabinet decision “appropriately.”

The Cabinet decision to allow Japan to carry out military operations to help an ally under attack even in the absence of a direct attack on Japan — plus the interim report’s call for the two countries to “expand the scope of cooperation to reflect the global nature of the Japan-U.S. Alliance” to help attain “regional and global peace and security” — is expected to greatly stretch the limit currently placed on cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. military in overseas operations, thus leading to the possibility of Japan being involved in military conflicts started by the U.S.

All these will mark a tremendous shift in Japan’s defense postures. Lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition parties must not sit idle but take up the matter in the Diet and put a brake on the attempts to expand the scope of defense cooperation between Japan and the U.S.

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