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Number 1 Shimbun

What's Ahead for Japan's Armed Forces

 No1-2015-12SDFThe fog of war: a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship during a review in October.

A look at what changes are in store

as restrictions loosen

on Japan's military activities

by Todd Crowell


n October, the U.S. Navy rolled out the red carpet (literally) as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set foot on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, the first time that any Japanese premier had visited a U.S. naval vessel at sea. Clothed in a flight jacket covering his pin-striped suit and accompanied by his deputy Taro Aso and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, Abe toured the ship, sat in the cockpit of an F-18 fighter and chatted with American officers, including the Chief of Naval Operations, America’s senior sailor. Earlier, Abe had reviewed the naval regatta from the bridge of a Japanese destroyer, where he later gave a succinct version of his military credo: “No country can protect itself on its own.”

The naval review, held every three years since 1860 and revived in 1957 with the rebirth of the Japanese navy now called the Maritime Self-Defense Force in keeping with the country’s American-written constitution – was the first major display of Japanese military might since the passage one month earlier to permit collective defense. Pride of the fleet was the recently commissioned “helicopter destroyer” Izumo, the largest warship Japan has built since World War II. The spirit of a reinvigorated partnership was evident in the words of Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, commander of the Third Fleet, which is based on the U.S. West Coast. The review was a “symbol of the ties between Japan and the U.S.,” she said.

Collective defense, the right to come to defense of allies and close partners, is dear to the prime minister, who steadily pushed through the legislation while taking hits to his popularity. In his first term (2006-2007) he formed the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security to propose new laws. It languished under his successors and the Democratic Party of Japan government, but was revived with a vengeance after Abe’s party won a landslide general election victory near the end of 2012.

Until the new law’s passage, Japanese soldiers

were legally constrained from coming to the aid

of other peace-keeping contingents,

even if they came under attack

The new laws are complicated, but are likely to impact Japan’s freedom of action in four areas: 1) participation in peace-keeping operations in the Middle East and globally; 2) in the response to a closing of the Straight of Hormuz shutting off Japan’s main source of petroleum; 3) dragging Japan into the South China Sea conflict in support of allies like the U.S. and “close partners” such as the Philippines and 4) in support of American military “assets” under attack, which could be defined as naval vessels close to Japan or to American bases as far away as Guam.

Ever since 1991, when Japan sent troops to Cambodia to help supervise that country’s first free elections, more than 8,000 Japanese servicemen have taken part in several global peace-keeping operations under U.N. auspices. It currently has about 350 ground self-defense force engineering troops deployed in South Sudan. The Maritime Self-Defense Force now takes part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden along with other nations, such as China and South Korea, with a permanent base in Djibouti, Japan’s only overseas military post.

However, until the new law’s passage, Japanese soldiers were legally constrained from coming to the aid of other peace-keeping contingents, even if they came under attack by terrorist groups or anybody else. This came to a head in 2013 when South Korean troops protecting refugees in Bor, the capital of Sudan’s Jonglei province, were running short of ammunition and asked Japan to lend them some bullets (Japan was the only readily available source of the correct caliber.) Abe was willing to comply with the request even though it was then technically illegal under the previous interpretation of the Constitution. He proposed to justify his decision by saying it was an “emergency,” but another source was eventually found, taking Abe off the hook.

WHILE YOU SHOULDN’T EXPECT to see Air Self-Defense Force F-15’s taking part in any bombings of Iraq and Syria, other military operations in the Middle East could become possible under the new rules. The one most often mentioned would involve sweeping maritime mines at the entrance to the Gulf of Hormuz, should they be planted by Iran to block petroleum shipments. Under those circumstances, Tokyo could argue that since 80 percent of Japan’s petroleum is imported, blocking shipments threatens Japan’s existence, thus making it an action of valid self-defense.

In fact, the Japanese navy actually swept mines in the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. However, that was after a ceasefire was agreed. Under the new rules this presumably could take place during hostilities.

The U.S. is eager to draw on Japanese capabilities in maritime mine warfare. With some 30 specialized vessels, Japan has considerable experience and capabilities in this arena of conflict, while the U.S., which tends to neglect mine warfare for sexier weapons such as aircraft carriers, has tended to neglect it.

But with the South China Sea getting hotter with Washington’s stance of confronting Beijing over its territorial claims, could Japan be drawn into the imbroglio? The legislation speaks of helping allies and “close partners” under attack. “Close partners” could be defined as countries like the Philippines or Australia, in which negotiated defense agreements allow Tokyo to, among other things, give the Philippines patrol vessels or to sell submarines to Australia. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III heartily supported the new security legislation. “We welcome the passage of legislation on national security,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda.


Washington and Manila are pushing Tokyo

to take part in regular patrols over the contested

Spratly Islands in the South China Sea


 The new security laws and the new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation that were negotiated last spring in anticipation of the new laws’ passage this past summer remove some of the geographical constraints on defensive cooperation. The U.S.-Japan partnership is no longer limited to “areas around Japan.” “The alliance will respond to situations that have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security. Such situations cannot be defined geographically,” says the newly approved guidelines for military cooperation with the U.S.

Washington and Manila are pushing Tokyo to take part in regular patrols over the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where China is turning tiny artificial islands into military bases. Manila has even offered bases for Japan. And Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, then commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet based at Yokosuka said earlier this year: “I think that [Self-Defense Force] operations in the South China Sea make sense in the future.”

So far, Tokyo has not committed itself to taking part in any such patrols. The pressure could be hard to resist should Washington send naval vessels into waters that Beijing considers part of its own territory to challenge China over territorial claims in the South China Sea (see box).

The new laws and guidelines permit Japan to help protect the “assets” of its allies and close partners. Some would argue that this merely codifies something that is unofficially already in place. Erik Slaven, Asia correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, surveyed American ship captains, and, to a man, they said they believed that Japan would come to the aid of an American ship under attack and sort out the legal questions later. “If it came to breaking the law or breaking the alliance, they would break the law,” he said.

PUTTING THIS ALL TOGETHER would seem to herald a significant shift toward a more militaristic Japan. That certainly is how many would interpret it. The New York Times in an editorial warned that Abe was getting “dangerously close” to changing the constitution by his own fiat rather than going through a formal amendment process, especially after Abe told a parliamentary session that changing the government’s traditional interpretation “rests with me.” Three prominent jurists, including, embarrassingly to Abe, one appointed by his own government, declared the legislation unconstitutional.

However, it is worth noting what isn’t changing as a result of the new security measures. Japan will still deny itself “offensive weapons,” which are defined as being able to project power abroad. These include long-range bombers, aircraft carriers, inter-continental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and, of course, nuclear weapons – all of which China possesses – and, probably, cruise missiles.

Defense appropriations have been increasing under the Abe administration, but have not broken the unofficial one-percent-of-GDP barrier, and the number of men and women in uniform has been static for years. Tokyo is not obliged to support the U.S. in any and all conflicts. The recently concluded defense guidelines with the Americans are just that: guidelines, not a mutual defense treaty.




ANGERED BY CHINA’S INCREASING encroachments and island-building on features that the Philippines claim are theirs in the South China Sea, Manila dispatches a converted coast guard vessel supplied by Japan plus a contingent of marines to retake Scarborough Shoal, occupied by China in 2012. As it approaches the shoal, the vessels are fired on by an armed Chinese Coast Guard ship patrolling the waters around the shoal, causing it to retire to the Zambales naval base on Palawan. Manila invokes the 1951 treaty of mutual defense with the U.S., saying it is under attack and asking it to come to its aid. Washington dispatches a destroyer to show solidarity with the Philippines. When it arrives, the American destroyer captain finds three Chinese naval vessels lurking nearby. It radios Honolulu, the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, for instructions.

The captain is ordered to sit tight. In the tense standoff, Washington consults with Tokyo over any logistical support. It asks that elements of the Japanese navy be ready to come to its aid if shooting breaks out. In the past, the question would not have arisen as it was understood that assistance of this kind was limited to “areas around Japan,” such as a conflict in Korea or around Taiwan, not somewhere as far distant as the South China Sea. But as part of its defense reforms enacted in spring of 2015, Japan has dropped the geographical limits to its cooperation with the U.S. or other close friends. In the best case, the ships eventually withdraw without further shots being fired, but this imagined scenario shows how easily Japan could be dragged into conflicts in the South China Sea.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan, published by Amazon as a Single Kindle.


Published in: December 2015

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