On April 27, the United States and Japan released the new set of guidelines for defence cooperation, a document which substantially alters the security relationship between the two countries and lays out a broad framework for the roles their respective militaries will play in international affairs. Above all else, this new iteration of the US-Japan defence guidelines outlines an alliance structure that, while grounded in bilateralism, is unequivocally and ambitiously global. It reflects 1) a deepening appreciation of the threats which confront Japan and the US both regionally and internationally and 2) an awareness of the anachronisms that pervade the existing guidelines. After all, when they were first written in 1978, bipolarity was the defining characteristic of the international system. But when the Berlin Wall fell and multipolarity replaced bipolarity, the assumptions underpinning them became less and less relevant. New challenges had begun to emerge on the Korean Peninsula and over Taiwan, and it became necessary to substantially revise the US-Japan security paradigm. That was in 1997. In the intervening eighteen years, new security challenges have emerged, forcing Japan and the US to go beyond the narrowly defined terms of their existing security agreement. Now, as Japan becomes increasingly involved in peacekeeping missions abroad and as China’s territorial ambitions threaten the balance of power in the region, a new guideline for defence cooperation has emerged. Described by US Secretary of State John Kerry as an, “historic transition in the defines relationship between our two countries”, this document is sure to polarise opinion both domestically and regionally. To understand why, several important changes from the 1997 agreement must be explained.
Under the 1997 guidelines, a “bilateral coordination mechanism” (BCM) was established to ensure that attacks on Japan or a “situation in areas surrounding Japan” (SIASJ) would be met with a coordinated response from the allies. However, security incidents that did not meet this criteria, like the 2011 earthquake, would not. To address this weakness, the BCM has been replaced with the “Alliance Coordination Mechanism” (ACM), which will enable a whole-of-government approach to developing security situations regardless of their exact nature. In essence, the ACM means that Japan will not have to be attacked before the alliance can be invoked.
A further refinement on the 1997 agreement is Japan’s increasingly unrestricted sphere of operations. No longer bound by geographical restrictions, Japan will now take a more prominent role in addressing regional and global security challenges. Specifically, Japan is now able to respond to attacks against countries other than Japan and defend against emerging threats to its security. These two conditions allow for a broad margin of interpretation and could refer to anything from defending against Chinese territorial expansion to protecting Japanese ships from piracy. The guidelines also stipulate a number of other circumstances in which Japan would be prepared to engage in “ [b]ilateral cooperation to promote regional and global activities…to [create] a more stable international security environment.” First, in security dialogues and defence exchanges, second, in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations and third, in emergency relief operations.
It is evident that Japan, under the leadership of Shinzo Abe and his newly reinterpreted constitution, is getting ready to “go global”. Although the new guidelines have not relaxed so far as to include combat or offensive operations, Japan has made it clear that it is prepared to do much more than simply defend its own borders. Clause Five of the Guidelines makes this point clearly: “As situations in areas surrounding Japan have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security, the Self-Defence Forces will conduct such activities as intelligence gathering, surveillance and minesweeping, to protect lives and property and to ensure navigational safety.”
Taken as a whole, the new guidelines have not significantly altered the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s military capabilities will remain more or less unchanged in spite of the latest revisions. What is significant about the agreement – and what has caused so much consternation in Beijing – is Japan’s evident desire to free its self-defence force from the shackles which have bound it for more than half a century. Whether or not a remilitarised, outward looking Japan will act as a deterrent for Chinese expansionism and bring order to a region crippled by instability remains to be seen.
Today, the 17th of December, the Japanese government has released its new national security strategy. It includes commitments to increase military spending and investment in new technologies, largely aimed at countering China’s growing maritime power and the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. A more robust military posture is also a cornerstone of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right wing nationalist politics, something that is destined to prove controversial both within Japan, and also in the wider region, with China and both Koreas certain to react with hostility to any perceived return to ‘Japanese militarism’.
Though co-operation with the United States (which guarantees Japan’s military security) seems likely to remain the primary feature of Japan’s defensive posture for the foreseeable future, moves towards more independence and assertiveness seem also seem likely to increase over coming years. The new national security strategy would help provide for this, with a 5% spending increase allowing for the purchase of more equipment for Japan’s already modern military. This will apparently include new naval destroyers, surveillance drones, fighter aircraft and Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. A new assault force (essentially a marine corps) equipped with amphibious landing craft, will also be created.
Much of this development is in response to the increasingly assertive presence of the Chinese military in the region, particularly in the maritime sphere. As China pursues a blue water navy, it is investing extremely heavily in new warships in order to expand it’s control in East Asian waters. This included, last year, the completion of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Though the Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier and not state of the art, it is allowing the Chinese to develop and train personnel for deployment on their own indigenously built aircraft carriers, which are scheduled to begin entering active service around 2020.
China’s increasingly assertive role has manifested in continuing tensions over a collection of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan and known as the Senkakus (though called the Diaoyu by China). These islands are a continuing flashpoint between the two nations, both as a source of national pride and also because of the rich natural resources and fishing fields in the area. Recently, China has unilaterally expanded its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) to cover a large swathe of the East China sea, a move that has provoked criticism from Japan, South Korea and the United States. It is worth noting that Japan’s own ADIZ is also of a similar size, and has also been expanded in a similar fashion in the past. Japan is also engaged in a territorial dispute over islands controlled by South Korea, as well as a long running dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories. Japan is also within missile range of North Korea, and feels threatened by its nuclear program and potentially destabilising actions.
Any Japanese re-militarisation would prove an extremely controversial affair. The legacy of the Second World War remains strong in East Asia, with the Chinese and Korean populace hostile to a Japan that they feel often refuses to face up to its wartime behaviour, particularly involving the usage of comfort women (native peoples forced into prostitution for the Japanese armed forces). Prime Minister Abe’s stringent nationalism is particularly marked – he has been ambivalent about admitting the war crimes committed by the Japanese armed forces, has denied the coercive role of the military in procuring comfort women, and has openly questioned whether Japan should be defined an ‘aggressor’ during the war, arguing school books should give a more positive view of Japan’s wartime role and behaviour.
Within Japan, Abe’s right wing nationalism is also controversial. A recent implementation of a hard-line new state secrets law promoted demonstrations in Tokyo, while Abe’s desire to overturn Japan’s pacifist constitution is well known. It would be difficult for Abe to do this currently, as he would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament as well as a successful referendum. Many on the Japanese left are apparently concerned that Abe is using the threat of a rising China to ‘re-militarise through the back door’ and to meet his own nationalist aims as opposed to external threats.
Despite frequent sabre rattling between China, both Koreas and Japan over their various disagreements and claims in the region, an imminent deterioration in East Asian stability is still very unlikely. However, the long term strategic issues in the region posed by a rising China, a US suffering from a stretched defence budget and declining influence, a remilitarised and more aggressive Japan and an unpredictable North Korea are extremely serious. Any conflict in the region would also have serious economic consequences world-wide, as China, Japan and South Korea are all major players in the global economy.