The Cable

Japan and U.S. Double Down on Defense Ties

Tokyo and Washington move out on a new defense and security relationship, insisting it's not all about China.

U.S. and Japanese warships underway in the Pacific
U.S. and Japanese warships underway in the Pacific

The United States and Japan have proposed a set of sweeping changes to their security relationship that will encourage Japan to take a more active role in military operations worldwide through a combination of missile defense, surveillance, cyber and space activities.

The work to rewrite the 1997-era security cooperation pact between the two countries — which still depends on a series of laws to be passed by the Japanese government — represents a radical new direction for Japan’s vision of itself as a global military power.

“This loosens the restriction on what Japan can do,” militarily, a senior U.S. defense official said on the condition of anonymity. The official added that the changes were “a big deal because the region has changed since we last revised the guidelines in 1997.” China’s rapid military modernization, a series of economic disputes over territory with Vietnam, and the destabilizing changes at the top of the North Korean regime have all shaken allies in the region in recent years.

While the official insisted that the changes were not aimed at any one country in particular, the subtext is clear. Huge advances in Chinese stealth technology, airpower, space surveillance, along with offensive missile capabilities have alarmed policymakers in Washington and Tokyo, and many of the changes to the guidelines can be seen a san attempt to check those advances.

New to the guidelines are provisions that call for Japan to be able to defend U.S. ships at sea while declaring the right to “respond to attacks on third countries if they are in close association with Japan and if those attacks directly threaten Japanese security,” the official said.

Japan will also shoot down missiles heading toward U.S. territory, even if Japan itself isn’t under attack.

The announcement of the new guidelines comes as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Washington to meet with President Barack Obama and address a joint session of Congress on April 29. They were formally unveiled Monday in New York City after a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter and their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida and Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani.

In a joint statement following their meeting, the four leaders wrote that the new guidelines showcase “the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan, through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, including nuclear and conventional.”

It also outlines a host of activities in the cyber realm, including increased information sharing, and highlights the deployment of advanced U.S. assets to Japan that greatly boost the ability of the United States to project power while increasing its surveillance capabilities.

Upcoming deployments include U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance planes to Okinawa and U.S. Air Force Global Hawk drones to mainland Japan. Also on its way are Marine Corps F-35B aircraft to Japan in 2017 and U.S. Navy Aegis ships to Yokosuka Naval Base by 2017. The Pentagon will also be replacing the aircraft carrier USS George Washington with the more advanced USS Ronald Reagan later this year.

These deployments will be made alongside a new joint coordination plan that will allow U.S. and Japanese military staffs to work more closely together and share more information.

The agreement “represents a real change and a real improvement in the ability of the U.S. and Japan to operate together,” the U.S. official said, adding that “we’ll be able to do a lot of things globally that we have only been able to do” in the defense of Japan.

While significant, the guidelines still must be seen in the context of Japanese politics, however.

The Japanese parliament, the Diet, is currently weighing a host of new laws that would remove prohibitions on Tokyo doing things like supplying ammunition to an ally or refueling other nations’ fighter planes, according to James Schoff, senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But “the U.S. needs to be careful not to assume that Japan has flicked a switch and will be significantly more active. I expect Japan to still be very selective in what they do and do not do,” he added.

As opposed to taking direct military action, Japanese forces will more likely provide logistical, support or surveillance assets, and “you’ll see a much more integrated approach to missions” where Japan assists its American allies in planning, he said.

Japanese forces have provided humanitarian assistance missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, but their involvement had been strictly legislated and limited.

Significantly, the U.S. and Japanese officials in New York also said in their statement that the disputed Senkaku Island chain claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing “are territories under the administration of Japan,” and that any move against the islands by a foreign power would trigger an immediate response.
(U.S. Navy Photo)

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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