US and Japan Defense CooperationMay 8, 2015 in Japan, United States
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.