Almost immediately after news of the devastation wrecked by typhoon Haiyan starting pouring out of the Philippines, Japan—along with a host of other countries in the region and further afield—pledged significant assistance. The destruction caused by the typhoon has been horrendous and the loss of life and damage to an already weak infrastructure is magnifying the search for the missing and wounded. Tokyo responded by offering millions in aid and two small task forces of emergency relief and its elite disaster relief team. Additionally, Japan pledged to deploy more than one thousand Self Defense Forces (SDF) personnel aboard three naval vessels. The SDF vessels will carry helicopters and significant food and medical cargo to assist Filipinos in remote and areas with limited access.
The SDF deployment is significant for several reasons. First, it represents one of the largest mobilizations of SDF outside of Japan since the force was created after World War II. The fact that Japan has exorcized its ghosts in favor of trending toward a normal defense and security posture is a welcome development, and one that is supported by the US and several in the region—including the Philippines. Of course, the SDF's increased role overseas is still complicated by a number of legislative hurdles. One significant obstacle was resolved this past week when the Japanese diet approved a bill to revise the Self-Defense Forces Act in order to allow the SDF to facilitate the ground transport of Japanese nationals in foreign countries. This is a logical step that nearly all modern militaries and governments use and is essential element to protect Japanese expatriates. In fact, the problems created by absence of such legislative authority were glaringly clear during the Abe administration’s frustrated response when several of its nationals were taken hostage this past January in Algeria.
The SDF role is also likely to be under the microscope as the mission in the Philippines coincides with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to reinterpret the constitution on the right to collective self-defense. The Advisory Panel, assembled by Abe, on the issue recently tabled a draft proposal last week that recommends changing the interpretation of the constitution in order to allow the SDF to expand its role abroad in such missions. Currently, the Japanese government reads the Constitution as prohibiting this right, despite such an allowance being permitted under international law. Of course, the absence of Japan’s role in collective-self defense has been a sticking point in its military alliance with the United States as it effectively prohibits Tokyo from responding to a potential third party attack on its ally.
The proposal on collective-self defense is also complemented by a host of other security reforms on the way in Japan including the release of a National Security Strategy and revised National Defense Program Guidelines at the end of this year. These changes will also result in the creation of a new US-style National Security Council in 2014. Unfortunately, these reforms have been erroneously juxtaposed alongside Abe’s views on history by some in the region, notably China and South Korea, to create a perception that Japan has a more sinister purpose and is “tilting towards the right”. This creates a second hurdle to reforming the image of the SDF’s role overseas in missions such as that which is currently happening in the Philippines.
Japan’s response to Haiyan however is multilayered and has implications that transcend its own domestic reforms and its alliance with the US. Tokyo’s $30 million aid package (plus $2 million from Japanese NGOs and $20 million to the Asian Development Bank) is the second largest in the Asia-Pacific region exceeding Australia’s $28 million donation and trailing the US’ package of nearly $40 million. The timing of this trilateral effort is especially fortuitous in light of last month’s Trilateral Strategic Dialogue held between the three foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and the United States. Further bolstering Tokyo's efforts was the diminutive contribution from China. In the wake of this carnage, Japan has taken the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment and solidarity to both the Philippines and the region. Indeed, Japan’s aid efforts coincide with the recent visit of Abe to Laos and Cambodia—two countries traditionally beholden to China—which completes his tour of all ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Abe’s outreach to ASEAN comes amidst seemingly intractable and toxic disputes with Japan’s regional neighbours, China and South Korea.
Tokyo’s focus on ASEAN indicates its own strategic “rebalance” within Asia and has fueled concerns in Beijing that the Abe administration is framing a regional containment strategy against China. Yet while China may condemn such efforts, it has done very little to scuttle Japan’s approach as evidenced by its diplomatic and humanitarian failure over an adequate response to Haiyan. Instead of taking this opportunity to demonstrate its credentials as a legitimate contender for regional hegemony, China essentially demurred in favor of coupling humanitarian aid with its intransigent siege policy with the Philippines over the South China Sea row.
Beijing’s mismanagement of Haiyan does not bolster only Tokyo’s goals though. The international cooperation of in the Philippines portends well for both the US rebalance and the future of the US-Japan alliance. As Patrick Cronin recently wrote: “The response to Haiyan could be a turning point for the United States in Asia: an opportunity to re-up the pivot, and to pour cold water on the narrative of a dominant China.” Indeed, this example of soft power was on full display through US-Japan cooperation in Operation Tomodachi after the 3/11 triple disaster in northern Japan. Now in the Philippines, the US and its key regional allies—Australia, Japan, Korea and Thailand—are working in tandem to assist another long-time ally of Washington. This demonstration of soft power should upend unfair termination of the rebalance as merely a unilateral containment strategy against China. In reality, the Haiyan response embodies the regional element of the rebalance. In other words, U.S. policy in Asia is not myopically focussed on its own ships and personnel but has a more lasting goal of uniting likeminded allies to resolve regional crises and disasters.
J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan and Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum.