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Interim Report on Revision of Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation

Dr. Rajaram Panda, C3S Paper No.2050


On 8 October 2014, the Japanese and the US governments released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, emphasizing that the two governments will cope with emerging security challenges such as China’s maritime expansion through “seamless” responses. The guidelines are set to be revised by the end of 2014 or early 2015. The government of Abe Shinzo needs to accelerate efforts to devise specific revisions while crafting relevant domestic legislation.

Since the end of World War II, the Japan-US Security Treaty has remained as the lynchpin of America’s security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The recent changes in the security situation of the region have only contributed to the strengthening of this relationship. Both have made assiduous efforts to further strengthen the ties to make it robust. At the 2+2 Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting in Tokyo between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry with their Japanese counterparts on 3 October 2013, the ministers of the two countries set forth a strategic vision for a more robust alliance “in a complex regional environment and a dynamic world”. The commitment of both to make the alliance a platform for international cooperation has never wavered. Both countries felt that their strategic vision for an expansive partnership would require enhanced capabilities and greater shared responsibilities. This needed the revision of the 1997 Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation.

The revised guidelines fully accord both countries’ strategic goals and interests. While for the US, the revisions aligns with its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, for Japan it corresponds to its efforts for the defense of its territory and people and the policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation. On 1 July 2014, the Japanese Cabinet took a decision for developing seamless security legislation, envisioning the expansion of the Self-Defense Forces’ activities consistent with the Constitution. The revision of the Guidelines complements to this decision, enhancing Japan’s deterrence capabilities. By doing this, both the countries hope to contribute to international peace and security more effectively.

As agreed on 3 October 2013, the SCC directed the Subcommittee for Defense Cooperation (SDC) to draft recommended changes to the 1997 Guidelines that would address the evolving security environment surrounding Japan. The interim report is intended to lay out clearly and transparently the framework and objectives for the revised Guidelines. The two governments reached a shared recognition on the importance of:

  1. Seamless and effective whole-of-government Alliance coordination;

  2. Taking measures to prevent the deterioration of Japan’s security;

  3. Enhancing bilateral cooperation to generate a more peaceful and stable international security environment;

  4. Cooperation in space and cyberspace in an Alliance context; and

  5. Mutual support in a timely and effective manner.

This interim report does not create legal rights or obligations for either government.

It is unmistakably clear that the new guidelines are in response to new threats extant in the world and to a new willingness of Japan to embrace a greater role in the world. The last time the guidelines were revised was in 1997. That was at the end of the cold war and when North Korea had started developing missile technology. The situation in the region has dramatically changed since then and thus required appropriate provisions in the guidelines to meet new challenges. Therefore, the new guidelines discuss new challenges to freedom of navigation, and further growth of the North Korean threat.

 The areas under discussion include joint information sharing, cooperation in space and cyber, non-combatant evacuations, the role of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance air and ballistic missile defense, asset protection, training and exercises, peacekeeping, logistics support and maritime security.

The word ‘seamless’ appears seven times in the interim report. Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs reiterated the US commitment to create a framework that would enhance the Japan-US alliance for the next several decades and make it suitable for future areas. One of the major points of the revision is how to cope with so-called gray zone incidents — security situations that do not involve military attacks but in which military tensions are heightened. This concept came to the fore as a result of China’s maritime expansion and North Korea’s nuclear development program. The interim report says, “There are also cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved,” and stresses the importance of “seamless” cooperation between Japan and the United States.

Since “asset protection” is one of the measures included in the report, it would mean that if US warships are suddenly attacked while conducting warning and surveillance activities in cooperation with the Self-Defense Forces amid heightened tensions around the Senkaku Islands, the SDF would protect the US vessels. The guidelines also assume that the SDF would defend US warships engaged in missile defense if a possible missile launch against Japan was feared. Moreover, the kinds of threats that continue to emerge are so amorphous that they can have immediate impact on countries that are not even main targets.

Since the interim report touches briefly on Cabinet decision of 1 July to allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defense in limited situations, the final report on the revised guidelines is expected to outline the details of situations where Japan’s use of force would be permitted. The report did not specify how Japan and the US would divide their roles in such situations. The final guidelines will likely incorporate how both nations would respond to situations that had been debated by the ruling parties, including the defense of US vessels carrying Japanese nationals being evacuated from an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, and minesweeping operations on sea lanes. One large difference from the present guidelines is the emphasis on trilateral and multilateral security and defense cooperation with regional allies and partners such as Australia and South Korea.

 The government of Abe has to take the domestic factors into consideration before agreeing to the final draft of the guidelines. Abe has to take into consideration the views of his government’s coalition partner, the New Komeito, and also other parties that are concerned before rushing the legislation through. Unified local elections are also due in early 2015 and any hasty decision could impact on the outcome. In view of the above, the Abe government is likely to submit the bill for Diet deliberation only in the spring of 2015. Abe could be open to criticism if he does not involve other parties in the discussion and would be seen as giving greater priority to the US than the Diet and just following Washington’s lead.

Since 1977 when the guidelines were last updated, the SDFs have crafted a solid record in international activities, including reconstruction support in Iraq, refueling operations in the Indian Ocean and participation in an antipiracy mission. The report aimed to squarely depict these operations as Japan performing an international role in line with the Japan-US alliance. The interim report, therefore, clearly states that both nations will enhance “cooperation for regional and global peace and security,” and adds both “will expand the scope of cooperation to reflect the global nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Strengthening global cooperation is a key element in the guidelines. The interim report did not mention the “situations in areas surrounding Japan” spelled out in the current guidelines. This has concerned some observers who believe that Japan, in combination with allowing the exercise of the right of collective self-defense in certain situations, is poised to remove geographic restrictions and instead be willing to provide support for the US anywhere around the world. That seemed to be the message also when the Cabinet took the decision on 1 July 2014 on Japan’s exercise the right of collective self-defence.

Hereafter, it seems, Japan-US security relationship will be defined more in terms of enabling swift, flexible and bilateral defence cooperation between the two countries, and eliminating the three classifications of circumstances – peacetime, contingencies Japan may face, and contingencies in areas surrounding Japan – stipulated under the existing guidelines that were revised in 1997. The current guidelines contain strict criteria for the recognition of circumstances as a contingency in areas surrounding Japan and therefore Japan finds it difficult to invoke. This has prevented Japan from supplying fuel even to US military vessels on joint alert with the MSDF over a ballistic missile launch by North Korea. The revised guidelines intend to remove such restrictions and therefore would be a landmark in security legislation. This would mean an enhanced bilateral security system that would allow the SDF and US forces to cooperate closely and respond effectively to so-called gray-zone situations — which are deemed neither peacetime incidents nor contingencies — such as the occupation of remote islands by armed groups. It seems appropriate therefore that the interim report stipulates “protection of assets (including equipment)” as a specific type of cooperation.

The scope of the role of the SDF will now be expanded. This would be in line with the government’s new interpretation of the Constitution, adopted in July, which allows the SDF to protect US vessels under armed attacks in gray-zone situations, in addition to enabling the nation to exercise, within a limited range, the right of collective self-defense. The use of weapons, as permitted under such a scenario as MSDF vessels coming under armed attacks, stipulated in Section 95 of the Self-Defense Forces Law, is to be applied to the protection of U.S. military vessels. The Yomiuri Shimbun observed in an editorial thus: “This should be recognized as an effective move that will facilitate Japan-U.S. joint warning and surveillance activity in areas surrounding Japan, and enhance bilateral relations of trust.” The issue of Japan’s exercise the right of collective self-defense was not included in deference to the sentiment of the coalition partner and other parties but is likely to form a part clearly defining such a role when the final report is prepared.

China will be concerned at this new development and is likely to perceive such provisions are stipulated keeping China in mind. Things are more complicated that those appear on the surface. Though Japan and South Korea are alliance partners of the US, Japan and South Korea have a frosty relationship in recent times, while South Korea’s relations with China are warming. In view of such complication in relationships, the US briefed South Korea on the contents of the revised interim guidelines of Japan-US security cooperation and sought its understanding. The Yomiuri Shimbun aptly observed in its editorial: “Japan, for its part, must explain in a careful manner to its neighboring countries what the nation intends to do with the guidelines and its policy for developing related legislation so as to enhance transparency in their revision.” If strengthening Japan-US alliance that also addresses regional issues contributes to regional peace and stability, the value of the alliance as “a public good” must be acknowledged. If it deviates from the prescribed role, that would be reason for Japan’s neighbors to feel concerned.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

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