Japan Expands Military Role Abroad

Tokyo, Japan (SCF) – On September 17, Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe rammed through a legislation allowing sending the nation’s troops to fight in overseas conflicts for the first time since World War II. It marks a significant departure from Japan’s pacifist posture. The nation has forever dumped the restrictions governing its self-defense forces (SDF) operations outside the country.

The new law allows the self-defense forces (SDF) to defend Japan’s allies, even when the country isn’t under attack, and work more closely with the U.S. and other friendly countries, including international peacekeeping. Japan will now play a bigger role in taking up security responsibilities under the U.S.-Japan alliance. Under the terms of the bilateral security treaty, the U.S. is obliged to protect Japan in case it comes under attack, but the alliance has never worked in the other direction. Now it will. The legislation could also mean an increase in heated rhetoric between Japan and China with regard to their disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea.

A key feature of the law is an end to a long-standing ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or defending the United States or another friendly country that comes under attack in cases where Japan faces a “threat to its survival”. For example, a Japanese ship could fire on an enemy attacking a US naval ship. Japan’s forces might also shoot down a North Korean missile under the pretext it is launched to strike the United States. Self-Defense Forces previously fueled U.S. ships headed for combat operations in Afghanistan under a temporary law. The new law allows Japan to provide a wider range of supplies, including ammunition, without any global constraints. Now Japan can take a military action to keep shipping lanes secure, such as minesweeping. Armed involvement in hostage rescues is possible. There are no regional limits on Japanese military support for US and other foreign armed forces.

True, the Japan’s SDF will only be allowed to employ the minimum necessary force, and only when no options other than force exist. But opponents decry the lack of detailed scenarios for when such force would be employed.

Diplomatic tensions in Northeast Asia are likely to rise.

Critics argue that the law could lead to Japanese troops being caught up in battles on behalf of the United States on distant shores similar to the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. Some analysts might say that the military distinction between self-defense and a more expansive regional military role is redundant. The law will add to fears that an arms race could be sparked with China and its neighbors. There is also concern about the potential impact of the legislation on Japan’s defense budget at a time when the country is struggling with a crippling national deficit and chronic economic stagnation. The nation is still scarred by the suffering wrought by World War II that has left many Japanese with a deep-seated aversion to military action.

Public approval for Abe’s cabinet has fallen to 38.9 percent from 43.2 percent in mid-August, with a majority of respondents opposing the bills, according to the latest Kyodo News survey.

At that any lawsuit aimed at overturning the legislation could take years to wind its way through various lower courts before reaching the Supreme Court.

The law fueled anger among Japan’s neighbors. China was quick to respond to the outcome in a statement urging Japan to learn lesson from history. But China’s defence ministry said that they “run counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and co-operation”, the Xinhua news agency reports. “The move has breached the restrictions of Japan’s pacifist constitution,” the ministryadded.

The two Koreas, which suffered harsh Japanese occupations in the 20th century, also blasted the new law.

The issue will be on the bilateral agenda during the planned visit of Russian President Putin to Japan (no precise date is fixed as yet).

The push for broader powers for Japan’s armed forces was backed by the US, Australia and neighbors including Taiwan that want the country to share the burden of patrolling Asian waters and to help maintain the regional balance of power.

The impassioned debate surrounding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to give Japanese defense forces a bigger role internationally obscures the fact that the country is already a significant military player. It has well-equipped air, sea and land forces with ambitious modernization plans under way.

On the 31st of August, 2015, the Japanese defence ministry requested a military budget of 5.1 trillion yen ($42, 3 billion) for the 2016 financial year, a rise of 2.2% on the 2015 budget – the highest level in Japan’s modern history. The Japan’s SDF are among the world’s largest military with annual military spending ranking sixth in the world last year – in Asia second only to China.

The planned expenditure includes the expenses to support the U.S. military presence in Japan, including support for local governments that host U.S. bases. The cost of defense acquisition keeps rising as Japan continues to seek state-of-the-art defense equipment, often used by the U.S. military (the F35A and Global Hawk are examples). Japan looks to acquire more U.S. platforms.

Japan is the third largest economy in the world standing out as technologically advanced. Despite the proclaimed defensive posture, Japan’s military has always been equipped with hi-tech hardware and is organized to be able to rapidly expand.

The Japan’s army of some 150,000 troops is a relatively small force, but the nation boasts an impressive navy including a small helicopter carrier, six Aegis-equipped ships with sophisticated radars and battle management systems (four of them are capable of shooting down ballistic missiles along with land-based PAC-3 missile interceptors) and some 34 destroyers and nine frigates of various types. It also has some 80 anti-submarine warfare or maritime patrol aircraft. More Aegis-equipped ships are planned. Brand new, Japanese-built maritime patrol aircraft are coming into service. This year, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force commissioned – a new helicopter carrier – the JS Izumo (the largest vessel yet). This could potentially embark a number of V-22 Osprey vertical lift aircraft to give its navy a power projection capability. Japan is thought to be interested in buying up to 17 of them from the United States. Formally, the Aegis-equipped ships have a mission to protect Japan from North Korea. But they could also pose a threat to Russian strategic submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Over the years, Japan has widened its sphere of international military activities. Japanese warships have participated in international anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and Japanese maritime patrol aircraft have supported this mission from Djibouti.

Strengthening the alliance with Japan is central to the US policy of containing China. In April 2015 the US and Japan signed a revised bilateral defense-cooperation agreement. The allies plan to expand their military cooperation under new guidelines that, for the first time in the history of the alliance, will allow Tokyo to project its power on a global scale. The updated guidelines envision Japan playing a greater role in peacekeeping missions as well as in responses to natural disasters and humanitarian relief operations. The provisions also call for more cooperation and information sharing in areas like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and cyberspace. The agreement also envisions increased cooperation in the development and production of defense technologies, which U.S. is eager to explore. The guidelines also do not envision any changes to existing agreements between the U.S. and Japan to relocate some U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam as well as the construction of a new U.S. military facility at Futenma.

Under the revised guidelines, the two countries will work together through a new Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM), which will link the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense with Japan’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, as well as the U.S. military and Japan’s self-defense forces. Officials say other departments and agencies will be brought in as needed.

It is no secret that since the end of WWII, the United States has maintained its global hegemony and projected its power by forging and enhancing alliances across the world. The recent events in Japan indicate there could be an important shift in the US club of allies.

The recently adopted law eliminates the geographical limits imposed on the activities of Japanese forces and, instead, allows Japan to engage in global military cooperation in areas ranging from defense against ballistic missiles, cyber and space attacks to maritime security. Thus, one should not be surprised to see the US policing the world someday with Japan as its sidekick.

However, there are also disadvantages for the both partners to face.

Japan will be even more tightly tied to the US global military strategy. This, in turn, will reduce the space of Japan’s diplomatic maneuvering, because there is no guarantee of not being drawn into conflicts involuntarily. Because of its military and political dependence on the US, Japan can never be even close to becoming a big power. The government and lawmakers should have thought twice before pushing Japan into the embrace of the US.

A stronger military alliance with Japan bodes trouble for the US as well. Washington insists the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea fall within the scope of its military pact with Tokyo. It risks a head-on confrontation with China. Japan has repeatedly refused to sincerely repent its history of aggression. The new laws are not viewed by regional powers as a blessing to regional peace and stability.

With the new law in force Japan will be under pressure to increase defense spending. In the event a Republican President takes office in the US, things are going to get tougher for Japan when it comes to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Mount Fuji, Japan. Image Source: "Mountfujijapan" by Swollib

Mount Fuji, Japan.
Image Source: “Mountfujijapan” by Swollib

While the world attention is diverted to the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific is becoming a volatile region with uncertain security prospects. Japan has an important role to determine the regional policies. The country is still facing economic hardships; it’s far from being fully back on track. Are the growing military expenditure and hawkish US-dictated foreign policy the things the Japanese people aspire for – that is the question.

Written by Andrei AKULOV for Strategic Culture Foundation.