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Japan, US must bolster strategy for coping effectively with China

Publication Date : 07-01-2014

 

The international situation surrounding Japan remains opaque.

To maintain our nation’s peace and prosperity, it is imperative to map out and implement diplomatic and security policies more actively and strategically than ever before.

The most important task in addressing this challenge is to beef up Japan’s alliance with the United States.

In particular, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs and China’s arms buildup and maritime advances have been destabilising the whole Asia-Pacific region.

Under the circumstances, it is crucial to enhance the deterrent power of the Japan-US alliance, which has been rated highly by many countries in the region as an “international public good.”

Beef up defence guidelines

Toward the end of last year, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe created the Japanese version of the US National Security Council and mapped out the National Security Strategy.

The Abe administration has also won approval from the Okinawa prefectural government for land reclamation required to relocate the functions of the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in the prefecture to the Henoko district on the prefecture’s northeastern coast.

Both the establishment of the NSC and the progress on the Futenma relocation are highly conducive to solidifying the alliance.

As its top priority this year, the government should conduct a long-overdue review of the conventional interpretation of the Constitution regarding this country’s right to collective self-defence.

Under the current interpretation, the Self-Defence Forces are not allowed to retaliate even if a nearby US military vessel is attacked, having no choice but to turn a blind eye to the situation. This could cause the Japan-US alliance to crumble at its foundation.

Changing the existing constitutional interpretation that this country “has the right to collective self-defence but cannot exercise it”, thereby making exercise of the right possible, would represent a major step toward rectifying the asymmetry in the bilateral alliance, in which the United States has “an obligation to defend Japan, but Japan has no obligation to defend the United States.”

It is crucial for the government to iron out differences between its views and those of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and New Komeito, which either oppose altering the current constitutional interpretation or are wary of such a change. Abe should lead the way in calibrating these views.

Also high on the agenda is yet another revision to the guidelines for defence cooperation between Japan and the United States scheduled for late this year.

The current guidelines resulted from the revision in 1997 of earlier ones. The current guidelines primarily take into account a possible crisis on the Korean Peninsula, providing specifics about the SDF’s logistic support for US forces. A law was passed in 1999 concerning SDF operations to assist US military forces during an emergency in areas surrounding Japan, but as yet the government has had no occasion to recognise such an emergency as stipulated by the law.

To make it possible for the SDF to deal promptly with such crises as the seizure of a remote island in Japan’s territory by Chinese agents pretending to be fishermen, the forthcoming Japan-US security guidelines should specify a new framework for close cooperation between the SDF and US forces even in “gray areas” between peacetime and emergencies.

Another essential task is to ramp up the SDF’s patrol and surveillance capabilities as well as rapid response preparedness based on the new National Defence Programme Outline drawn up toward the end of 2013.

Some argue that strengthening Japan’s defence capabilities would stir up adverse reactions from neighboring countries, thus worsening the nation’s security environment.

It should be noted, however, that China continued its large-scale arms buildup even as Japan’s defence expenditures shrank for 10 consecutive years.

Diplomacy and military affairs are closely connected. Unless both are reinforced, Japan cannot defend its territory and our national interests.

The issue of how to face China, which has gained power militarily and economically and does not mind changing the international order by force, is a concern not only for Japan but also for the international community.

Recover lost ground

There is no denying that Abe’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine has given China an excuse to criticise Japan and has weakened Japan's partnership with other friendly countries.

Before Abe’s visit to the shrine, it was China’s self-righteous behaviour, including its unilateral establishment of an air defence identification zone, that drew criticism from the international community. But Japan, too, may be held responsible for worsening the regional situation. The government should not make light of the fact that the United States, Japan’s ally, expressed “disappointment” with Abe’s visit to the shrine.

It is important that Abe, first of all, hold close talks with the US side and explain the true intention of his visit, while at the same time working out Japan’s mid- and long-term strategies toward China.

In cooperation with South Korea, Australia and Southeast Asian countries, Japan must persistently urge China to comply with international standards and “act responsibly”.

Since the government nationalised some of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, Japan-China relations have plunged to what is said to be their worst level in postwar history, and no summit talks have been held since the nationalisation. Japan must assume this situation may last for a protracted period.

Needless to say, Japan must not make any concessions whatsoever over territorial issues.

But closing the door on bilateral dialogue and cooperation in such fields as economic and environmental issues would be detrimental to both countries.

To explore ways to cooperate on these practical issues may help both countries take a step forward toward returning to the “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”.

Foreign visits important

Advocating “proactive contributions to peace”, Abe went abroad on 13 occasions last year, visiting 25 countries, including all the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He will visit India, Ethiopia and four other countries this month.

Diplomacy is a hardheaded game in which a country has to do its utmost to gain more friends and expand its national interests to the maximum. Strategically building amicable relations with as many countries as possible will become an asset for Japan’s diplomacy.

In recent years, prime ministers were replaced almost annually, making it difficult for Japan to pursue head-of-state diplomacy. Visits to foreign countries by Abe, who can expect a long-term administration, can be utilised as an important diplomatic card.

It is essential for Japan to enhance its presence internationally by proactively becoming involved in crafting international security rules, such as those on maritime activities and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in addition to pursuing its economic diplomacy in such fields as exports of infra-structure-related technology, energy and free trade agreements.

 

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