For Better Or Worse, Japan To Ease Reins On Its Military

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U.S. Army Photo

A Japan Ground Self Defense Force officer listens to remarks during closing ceremonies for a joint U.S.-Japan training exercise in central Japan last fall. He wears unit patches acquired from American troops.

TOKYO – U.S. and Japanese officials began talks Thursday to expand the role of Japan’s armed forces and loosen decades-old restrictions on how and when troops can be used. Sounds ominous, but the changes likely will be modest, at least initially, and are long overdue. Unfortunately, they come at a very bad time.

The crisis over the Senkaku Islands is steadily worsening. Any loosening of the reins on Japan’s military is sure to be viewed with suspicion by China, which claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu.

Japan has scrambled F-15 fighter jets four times in recent weeks to chase off Chinese observation planes, and Japan’s new defense minister was quoted this week as implying that the fighters might fire warning shots the next time, a serious escalation (the comment was almost certainly taken out of context, but it does demonstrate the mood).

The talks are aimed at revising the guidelines that govern U.S.-Japan defense cooperation — basically, who does what if war breaks out, and how peacetime chores are divvied up. The guidelines were last revised in 1997, well before China began building up its military and pursuing aggressive territorial claims across the region, including the Senkakus.

A key item on the agenda is easing the restrictions on so-called collective self-defense.  Japan’s Constitution is pacifist in nature and largely forbids the use of military force; under the current interpretation, Japanese troops are allowed to protect themselves and national territory, but – with some exceptions – are not permitted to assist friendly or allied forces unless they themselves come under direct attack. That would include peacekeepers and U.S. ships or troops based in Japan.

Those limits have chafed both U.S. and Japanese commanders for some time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed easing the restrictions during his first term in office in 2006 and 2007. But the measure didn’t gather wide support until China began pressing its claims to the Senkakus in 2010.  The current guideline discussions were initiated by former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda last year but are supported by the more conservative Abe, as well.

The Ministry of Defense has proposed four scenarios under which the prohibition would be lifted:

– If U.S. ships were attacked while operating with Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces, Japanese vessels would be allowed to respond.

– If ballistic missiles were fired in the direction of the United States, Japanese ships or ground installations would be allowed to attempt to shoot them down.

– If international peacekeepers come under attack, Japanese peacekeepers would be allowed to come to their aid.

– If international peacekeepers require logistical support, Japanese forces would be allowed to provide it.

There’s little doubt the conferees will recommend those measure sand that a new interpretation of the Constitution will be adopted by the Abe administration, says Jeffrey Hornung, a Japan and East Asia Security specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

“Collective self defense is a no-brainer. It’s not an offensive capability. It’s not projecting power. It’s just what to do if the U.S. comes under attack,” says Hornung, who is in Japan this week for interviews with defense officials.

What remains unclear is the full scope of the defense talks, and China’s possible reaction.

Officials say they expect the talks to continue through the end of the year, which suggests a far-reaching look at the roles and missions of U.S. and Japanese forces. The 1997 review gave Japan more responsibility for its own defense, and the current talks could do the same.  Japanese warships equipped for ballistic-missile defense, for example, could take larger responsibility for defending against North Korea missiles, allowing U.S. warships to operate elsewhere, says Hornung.

China remains deeply suspicious of Japanese military capability and intentions. Abe’s nationalist-tinged rhetoric during the recent election campaign – if not his somewhat more moderate actions since – has done nothing to change that.

Abe wants to boost defense spending next year by about 2.6 percent, the first increase in 11 years. That’s far below the annual double-digit increases in defense spending by China over the last decade.

“It will take good diplomatic work to strike a balance between taking necessary military measures and not offending or undermining our relationship with China,” Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in Tokyo.