Japan Unleashed: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Japanese military assertiveness can improve regional security...or could lead to more conflict in the Asia-Pacific. 

Long fettered by Article 9 of its post-WWII constitution that renounces war as a sovereign right and prohibits the maintenance of military forces, Japan is now poised to unleash its military potential both at home and abroad. The May 14 endorsement of two key defense bills (the international peace support bill and the peace and security legislation development bill) by Japan’s Cabinet signals another big step in this direction. Historically, Japan’s constitution has barred its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) from entering overseas military engagements. The international peace support bill includes the right to exercise collective self-defense, which allows the SDF to assist a friendly nation, first and foremost, the United States, and then other allies and partners, when they are under attack. The peace and security legislation development bill streamlines the process by which Japan can provide logistical support to foreign military forces. Previous constitutional provisions required parliamentary approval each time that the SDF wished to engage in a multinational military operation. This new bill provides a single law under which Japan can assist its allies around the globe.

Japan has good reason to overhaul its postwar military policy. Currently, it faces a host of threats that could require proactive and vigorous military response. North Korea’s pugnacious behavior and growing capability to threaten Japan has been a longstanding concern. China’s recently escalated contest with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and a whole array of other unresolved issues introducing a menacing element into the already precarious relations between the two big Asian nations.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that these landmark security bills will take effect over the summer. Japan’s new military posture, which is reflected in the updated U.S.–Japan defense cooperation guidelines (released in April 2015), could radically alter both U.S.–Japan relations and East Asian military relations. As the United States maps out Japan’s future defense trajectory, it ought to take note of all of its implications: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Increased U.S.–Japanese Cooperation                      

The current U.S.–Japan military partnership is strikingly unequal. The U.S.–Japan mutual defense treaty is not “mutual” at all—Japan is not expected to (by the United States) and cannot (by Japan’s constitutional restrictions) come to the United States’ defense. While Japan maintains imposing Self-Defense Forces and hosts U.S. military bases, the United States bears the immense task of defending Japan from foreign threats. In an April 2015 interview with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (a Washington, D.C.–based U.S.–Japan relations think tank), Admiral Dennis Blair, former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, characterized the absurdity of Japan’s previous military restrictions by stating, “Until now, if North Korea shot a missile and Japan’s missile destroyer were in a maritime domain and could shoot it down, the commander would say, ‘The target is the United States, not Japan.’”

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Allowing Japan greater latitude to employ its SDF can serve U.S. interests while easing the United States’ hefty military burden. Consider the example of a crisis in Northeast Asia or the South China Sea. As China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea ratchet up fear amongst Southeast Asian nations, a single political or military misstep could send the region into disarray. In the event of such a military flare-up, the United States may require extensive logistical support to mount a proper response. Japan’s SDF can now provide the United States with the intelligence and military assistance necessary to handle a delicate situation in the Asia-Pacific. According to Admiral Blair, this assistance could take the form of missile defense and minesweeping in key ports. The SDF’s newly-acquired ability to lend support to its allies will also benefit U.S commercial (as well as military) interests by bolstering freedom of navigation. Now that Japan’s armed forces are permitted to take part in foreign military operations, Japan can credibly help to defend freedom of navigation alongside the United States.

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