New regime for security alliance

The latest revision to the guidelines on Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, formally agreed on in New York on Monday just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began his much-hyped visit to the United States, potentially expands the scope of the Self-Defense Forces’ joint operation with the U.S. military on a global scale in ways that essentially transcend the original architecture of the postwar security treaty between the two countries. The government says such a transformation is essential for the alliance to effectively deal with the radically changing global security environment. It is questionable, however, whether there is a domestic political consensus on how far Japan is ready to expand its international security role.

The guidelines, updated for the first time in 18 years, are not legally binding on either country. To put the agreement into effect, Japan needs to enact a legislative package that has been prepared by the Abe administration to implement a Cabinet decision last July that paves the way for the nation to engage in collective self-defense — in a major departure from the nation’s postwar defense posture — and significantly widen the scope of the SDF’s overseas missions. Through debate on the security legislation, the Diet needs to fully explore the implications of the new guidelines, including what they entail for Japan and its security in concrete terms.

The guidelines, which establish a division of labor between the SDF and the U.S. military, were originally adopted in 1978 in the middle of the Cold War — and were primarily designed for joint operations in the event of an armed attack on Japan, with the most likely scenario being an invasion by Soviet forces.

The previous revision in 1997 — after the end of the Cold War — was prompted by growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s programs to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and called for Japan to provide logistical support for U.S. forces in the event of contingencies in the area. Japan enacted a law two years later to set the terms of the SDF’s support of the U.S. military in undefined areas “surrounding Japan.” The prime minister at the time, Keizo Obuchi, said the government did not have in mind support missions by the SDF in the Middle East or the Indian Ocean.

Whereas the original guidelines and the 1997 update had been proposed by Washington, Tokyo took the initiative for the latest revision after Abe returned to power in 2012 — amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region both at sea and in the air as well as continuing tensions over North Korea. As it negotiated the revision of the guidelines with the U.S., the Abe administration changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to lift the nation’s self-imposed ban on collective self-defense and pave the way for joint military actions with Japan’s allies in contingencies outside of the country.

The new guidelines call for “seamless” defense cooperation from “peacetime to contingencies,” substantially expanding the range of joint operations between the SDF and U.S. forces. The effective geographical boundaries of Japan’s logistical support for the U.S. military in contingencies in the 1997 guidelines were removed, paving the way for such cooperation in situations that gravely affect Japan’s peace and security — irrespective of where they’re taking place in the world. As part of the planned security legislation, the government aims to amend the 1999 law on logistical support for the U.S. to eliminate the geographical concept.

The Abe administration reportedly sought to update the defense cooperation guidelines in the belief that Japan, by offering to play a more active international security role, would be able to solidify its alliance with the U.S. and make sure that the U.S. would come to Japan’s defense when its security is threatened — particularly in view of China’s growing maritime assertiveness, including repeated incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The U.S., for its part, is believed to welcome the Abe administration’s moves to expand Japan’s defense role, as the Obama administration has been forced by tight budgetary constraints to cut back on defense spending and is seeking greater security contributions from its allies.

It’s not clear, however, whether the U.S. and Japanese governments are really on the same page as to what they expect from each other. In his earlier visit to Tokyo, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted that the updated guidelines “help the two countries respond flexibly to the full scope of challenges that we face in the Asia-Pacific and around the globe.” But is Japan ready, for example, to engage in joint maritime surveillance activities with the U.S. in the South China Sea, where China’s territorial rows with its Southeast Asian neighbors have been escalating?

As possible responses to situations in which Japan’s survival is deemed to be under threat even though the nation is not directly under attack, the updated guidelines cite joint Japan-U.S. minesweeping operations to keep sea lanes open, as well as cooperation to defend the U.S. against ballistic missiles attacks, as examples where Japan may engage in collective self-defense. Abe has reiterated that Japan can send its Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels to sweep mines laid in the Hormuz Strait in the event of an emergency in the Middle East because a halt to the supply of oil from the region could threaten the survival of the nation’s economy. But a consensus remains elusive — even within Abe’s ruling coalition parties — as to what particular situation justifies such an action by Japan.

Under the bilateral security treaty, Japan has accepted the forward deployment of U.S. troops on its territory to safeguard the nation and to maintain international peace and security in the Far East. Under the previous guidelines, the scope of defense cooperation between the two countries was effectively limited to Japan and its neighboring areas. Now that the geographical boundaries are being lifted, Japan needs to make its own judgment on how far it will go in expanding its overseas security roles — an issue where there does not appear to be a national consensus nor a clear set of criteria for making future decisions.