Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Boston last night, kicking off his 8-day tour of America. And today in New York, Japan and the U.S. made their first of what may be many major announcements to come out of the visit: They have reached deal on new bilateral defense guidelines. Some have reported the announcement as Washington and Tokyo “doubling down” on their close defense relationship.
Secretary Kerry did indeed restate the U.S. commitment to defend territories under Japanese control, including the hotly disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) Islands. The two nations gave a thinly veiled lecture to China about territorial aggression, with Kerry saying that “the United States rejects any suggestion that freedom of navigation and overflight ‘are privileges granted by big states to small ones subject to the whim and fancy of the big state.'” And the U.S. reaffirmed its support behind Abe’s push to change Japanese official policy to allow it to go to war for purposes of “collective self-defense” (that is: defend fellow neighbors of China in case Beijing attacks).
For anyone who has been following the buildup to this event, however, “doubling down” might be a bit of an overstatement. The Senkaku/Diaoyu pledge, for example, was reaffirmed by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent trip to Japan, and by President Obama almost a year ago. Having Secretary Kerry mention it aloud probably means that the Japanese wish that the contested island chain be explicitly mentioned in the rewritten bilateral defense guidelines will be granted, so that’s a new development of sorts. But it’s not a change of policy—just a symbolic gesture meant to reassure the Japanese and show some spine to China.
The details surrounding what exactly Japan’s “collective self defense” entails, however, appear to be move substantive:
“It means that Japan can defend US ships engaged in missile defense activities in the vicinity of Japan,” a US official said earlier.
“It means that Japan can respond to attacks on third countries if they are in close association with Japan and if those attacks directly affect Japanese security,” he said.
One possible scenario could have Japan shooting down a missile headed towards the United States, even if Japan itself was not under attack, officials said.
Another official specified that North Korea was specifically the threat the two countries have in mind:
Japan will be able to defend regional allies that come under attack, a change that means Japanese missile defense systems could be used to intercept any weapons launched toward the United States — notable, given its close proximity to North Korea, which the official later described as a “growing threat” to regional stability.
We may get to hear still more details and specifics after Prime Minister Abe has his sit-down with President Obama on the 28th.
Japan is looking to be a defining feature of an emerging power balance in Asia. That is, if Abe’s ambitions come to fruition. We at TAI hope they do—and Ben Rhodes seems to concur—but we’re not quite there yet. History will really be made when the Diet, Japan’s parliament, votes on whether or not to allow the Abe cabinet’s reinterpetation of Japan’s officially pacifist post-War constitution. The LDP has parliamentary majorities which ought to ensure that all goes according to plan, but Japanese public opinion is not completely at ease with the proposals.