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Roughly 15 years ago, the Australian Defense Force was charged with protecting Japan Self-Defense Force units deployed to Samawah, Iraq, for reconstruction efforts.

It was an arrangement necessitated by Japan’s peace Constitution and security laws, which restricted the SDF’s use of weapons abroad in defending themselves against hostile actors. It also meant that the Australian Defense Forces who were responsible for the protection of their Japanese counterparts could not count on them to reciprocate in kind when under enemy fire.

This past weekend, the SDF demonstrated that, under the right circumstances, they can finally return the favor.

Japan and Australia reached a major milestone in their security relationship when, for the first time ever, the SDF executed an “asset protection” mission with a non-U.S. military unit.

From Nov. 10 to Nov. 12, Japanese destroyer JS Inazuma and Australian frigate HMAS Warramunga conducted bilateral exercises in the Pacific Ocean off of Shikoku, and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi announced that he had given the SDF the authority to protect the Warramunga in the event that it came under attack.

This exercise was small in scale and low in risk, but it nevertheless carries great significance for the Japan-Australia defense relationship and Japanese security practice, writ large.

The whole notion of “asset protection” is a bit of a gray area that demands further explanation. The simplest way to think of this is as a spectrum of violence against which Japan might defend a foreign partner, starting from criminal acts by nonstate actors (think pirates in the Gulf of Aden) and moving all the way to a clear, attributable armed attack by another country. Collective self-defense is the use of military force in response to that attributable armed attack, while “asset protection” covers responses to the broad array of other hostile acts on that spectrum.

So while asset protection is not quite collective self-defense in the legal sense, it does allow the SDF to protect other military forces when certain conditions are met. Those conditions are as follows: The operations must contribute in some way to the defense of Japan, they must take place in a noncombat area and they must be approved by the minister of defense. If protection becomes necessary in those operations, the SDF is permitted to use their weapons in defense of themselves and partner units while neutralizing or escaping the violent situation.

These powers are still relatively new. They came with the Japanese government’s reinterpretation of the Constitution in 2014, which permits the limited exercise of collective self-defense. Asset protection was one subset of that reinterpretation and became formally codified in the so-called Peace and Security Legislation of 2015. Within that legislation was the amendment to the Self-Defense Force Law, which established the legal provisions for asset protection. That legislation was promulgated just a little over five years ago in September 2015, coming into force in March 2016.

Referred to as “95-2 authorities” among government policy circles due to the article number of the law, the SDF and U.S. military were the first to pursue operationalization of this new mission set. After many months of coordination between the U.S. and Japanese governments, Japan’s National Security Council published implementation guidelines for the SDF in December 2016. From there, the guidelines went to the operational users of the new authorities, and the SDF’s first ship-to-ship asset protection mission took place in May 2017 when the JS Izumo escorted a U.S. Navy supply vessel in the waters around Honshu. Since then, the allies have increased the scope and volume of asset protection missions, reaching a peak in 2020 with 25 authorized operations.

The next partner the Japanese turned to for employment of these new authorities was Australia. The two governments had already deepened their security ties with the signing of a mutual logistics agreement in 2017, agreement on military information sharing in 2018 and an increase of bilateral and multilateral exercises along the way. The two also agreed in principle to a Reciprocal Access Agreement last year, which governs arrangements for Australian and Japanese forces to operate in each other’s territory. The two have now negotiated the terms of implementation for asset protection authorities, concluding those deliberations last month and operationalizing them this past weekend.

Some observers may look at this and question the utility of exercising asset protection authorities so close to Japanese territory. After all, what is the point of having those authorities in place if the probability of needing them is so low?

There are three reasons why this weekend’s exercise was so significant.

First is the fait accompli. In other words, in executing this first mission in which it had the authority to protect Australian assets, the SDF has established a precedent that cannot be undone. Operational precedent is key for Japanese security practice, as it eliminates political hurdles and makes subsequent missions easier to authorize and execute.

The second reason is that exercises — no matter how big or small — are essential for operational success. This is especially true for Australian and Japanese forces as they explore uncharted territory together. For Australian units, they must gain an understanding of the extent to which the SDF can legally exercise its authority, should they come under attack. Meanwhile, the SDF must learn about how the Australians respond to acts of aggression, because it will invariably be at least a little different from the U.S. military — the partner with which the SDF has the most experience.

Finally, while the scope of asset protection seems limited, there are still a range of bilateral operations where these authorities are necessary. Take, for example, joint task forces for escorting civilian vessels through dangerous waters or conducting anti-piracy missions. Further, asset protection authorities normalize the operational procedures for mutual protection that could have wider application across operations should collective self-defense ever become necessary.

This was a major milestone for both the Japan-Australia security relationship and for Japanese security practice, writ large. For the partner forces, it was another step closer in interoperability and a demonstration of their deepening security ties.

For Japanese security practice, it established the precedent of being able to protect foreign militaries. Australia may have been first, but the Japanese government has signaled that it will not be the last.

Next in the lineup are the United Kingdom, France and Canada, who have all followed the same path established between Australia and Japan. In the future, Japan will probably seek to bring others like India and Germany into the fold.

What was a small-scale exercise off the shores of Japan’s home islands will have a big impact as the Japanese government seeks to evolve to match the requirements of the regional security environment. These individual milestones, however quiet in their execution, represent a realization of the objectives laid out in Japan’s security designs meant to bring the country closer to the other so-called middle powers. And ultimately, they will help broaden Japan’s role in preserving the rules-based international order.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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