Japan has always been Washington's number one Asian ally. That was demonstrated with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Washington, highlighted by a speech to Congress. Unfortunately, the relationship increases the likelihood of a confrontation between the U.S. and China.
World War II ended 70 years ago, but Tokyo's international role remains stunted. The U.S. occupation authorities imposed the "peace constitution" with Article Nine, which forbids possession of a military. Although Japanese governments conveniently interpreted that provision to allow "Self-Defense Forces," Tokyo sharply limited their role and budgets.
Public sentiment has shifted toward greater foreign involvement out of concern with both North Korea and the People's Republic of China. Nevertheless, a recent Pew Research survey indicated that two-thirds of Japanese do not want a more active military. Public opposition has forced the Abe government to temper its plans.
During Prime Minister Abe's visit the two governments released new "Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation." The document clearly sets America against China.
First, the guidelines' rewrite targets China. Japan's greatest security concern is the ongoing Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute and Tokyo had pushed hard for an explicit U.S. guarantee for the unpopulated rocks. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the idea that navigation and overflight freedom were "privileges granted by big states to small ones," leaving no doubt what he meant. Questions and answers at the Abe-Obama press conference reflected great concern with Beijing. Noted Geoff Dyer in the Financial Times: "the threat that ties together [various allied] initiatives is the growing anxiety across Asia about a more powerful China."
Second, Japan's promise to do more is merely a wish; the document stated that it created no "legal rights or obligations." President Obama admitted: "it's important to recognize we do not expect some instant and major transformation in terms of how Japan projects military power." Tokyo will remain reluctant to act outside of core Japanese interests.
Third, though the new document removes geographical limits from Japanese operations, most of Japan's new international responsibilities appeared to be essentially social work (what Prime Minister Abe called "human security"). In his speech to Congress the prime minister said his nation would "take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world," but cited humanitarian and peace-keeping operations as examples.
Moreover, the guidelines indicate that the SDF's military involvement will be "from the rear and not on offensive operations," noted analysts at CSIS. When asked how the changes might enable Japan to help defend America, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani cited "marine sweeping, and also ship inspection." In contrast, last year the prime minister stated categorically that "the SDF will never participate in such warfare as the Gulf War or the Iraq War."
Fourth, to the extent force is involved, Japan mostly promises to help U.S. forces ... defend Japan. For instance, Tokyo cited as a great advance the fact that Japanese vessels now could assist U.S. ships if the latter were attacked while on a joint patrol. This should be inherent to any alliance, but Narushige Michishita, at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, noted that "technically" it remains impossible for Japanese forces to defend even a U.S. vessel in a Japanese flotilla "when an attack on that ship does not directly or will not directly threaten Japan's security." The new guidelines say Tokyo can aid other countries only if the threatened states are "in a close relationship with Japan" and the situation thereby "threatens Japan's survival and poses a clear danger to overturn fundamentally its people's right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, to ensure Japan's survival, and to protect its people."
In contrast, the revised guidelines begin with an affirmation that "The United States will continue to extend deterrence to Japan through the full range of capabilities, including U.S. nuclear forces. The United States also will continue to forward deploy combat-ready forces in the Asia-Pacific region and maintain the ability to reinforce those forces rapidly." This means more and newer weapons. The Security Consultative Committee "confirmed the strategic importance of deploying the most modern an advanced U.S. capabilities to Japan" and "welcomed the deployment" of various American aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, ships, and Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities.
Fifth, America's burden will grow. Tokyo's military expenditures have been flat for years, but now plans on devoting more resources to what Prime Minister Abe termed "proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation." That will leave less for defense against what the Japanese government sees as the greatest threat, the PRC—which continues to hike military outlays. Washington will be expected to fill the ever widening gap.
Sixth, the new rules build on the Obama administration's explicit promise to defend Tokyo's contested territorial claims, most importantly the Senkakus/Diaoyus. For instance, Obama declared that "our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and that Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including Senkaku Islands."
U.S. forces will be drawn into the islands' defense. According to the document, "If the need arises, the Self-Defense Forces will conduct operations to retake an island." The SDF would, of course, expect American support.
Japanese and U.S. authorities also are discussing mounting joint air patrols to the edge of the East China Sea and into the South China Sea. Tokyo doesn't have any territorial claims in the latter, but is working with other countries that do, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Thus, a U.S. plane could find itself challenging Chinese aircraft in support of a third nation's disputed territorial claim.
None of this makes sense from America's standpoint. Washington has little interest in protecting Tokyo's contested territorial claims. Especially since doing so encourages the Japanese government to be provocative, even reckless. Xinhua was uncomfortably close to the mark in claiming that Tokyo has "embroiled the U.S. in its squabbles with irritated neighbors."
President Obama argued that "we don't think that a strong U.S.-Japan alliance should be seen as a provocation." But it will be if directed against the PRC. Unfortunately, the new guidelines make it more likely that Washington will find itself confronting China over another country's interests, not those of America.