06.08.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The growing “grey zones” in the Japan-US relations

us-japan-400x300The new interpretation of the “anti-war” chapter 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947 that was adopted on July 1 by the government of  Shinzo Abe  has become one of the most significant events in the Japanese policy that will be shaping the political map of the Asia-Pacific region.

This move of the Japanese government is adjusting the format of political and military cooperation between the United States and Japan. We are talking about a major shift in the strategic quadrangular configuration, emerging in the Asia-Pacific. It is important to note that the union in question is lying in the heart of the US-Japan relations.

The first edition of the treaty was adopted back in 1951, one year before the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, that was summing up the war in the Pacific, the last – in 1960. Thus the basic content of the bilateral military-political alliance has not changed, and it can to a certain degree be described by a simple formula “protector (USA)” – “protected (Japan).”

This “degree” was modified by two important trends in the second half of the 90s . First of them was the decreasing importance of the role the United States had been playing in the world, which arose the question about further absolute reliance on Washington of all the major US allies in security matters. The second is the process of “normalization” of Japan itself.

Both of these trends were reflected in the form of innovations to the formula of the US-Japan alliance that were stated in the so-called “Guidelines for Japan-US defense cooperation” back in 1997.

While the right to use the Self-Defense Force (SDF) in a collective self-defense framework that the Japanese military received on July 1, 2014 is rather limited this very act of the Japanese government manifests an important step towards greater autonomy of Japan in its national security concerns.

The United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Heygel welcomed this step of the Japanese government. There could be no other reaction from the American defense establishment since the the Pentagon has been demanding its allies to “to enhance the contribution to the common defense” for the last fifteen years. These calls have become particularly relevant in recent years, when the declining US economy started to require a gradual reduction in the Pentagon’s military spendings.

However, the problems of American policy in the Asia-Pacific region has long gone beyond the purely defensive scopesince in the last fifteen years dramatic improvements have been made in identifying threats to regional stability. Those are the depth of the process of the Japanese “normalization” and the nature of its impact on the Sino-Japanese relations. This question has become relevant due to certain changes in the American policies towards China.

Will the United States face the problem of “automatic” (due to the alliance obligations) joining a war with the world’s second power due to the “trivial” (from the American point of view) discordsAn example of such a discord is undoubtedly the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the ownership of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The uncertainty of such a prospect explains the restrained reaction of American experts and journalists to the next important step the Japanese government took towards the “normalization” of the country.

Those same concerns govern the content of the bilateral negotiations on the new draft of the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, which remains unchanged since 1997. These negotiations are held by Deputy Ministers of Defense of the two states and they started in Tokyo on July 15.

The problem lies in the inability of the parties to define mutual obligations in the so-called “grey zone” of a possible conflict, which would not imply “automatical” execution of duties by one of the allies.

For Japan, it is important to get the support (armed if needed) of the United States in case the SDF will face some small armed groups “of unknown nationality” that would land on the Senkaku islands. But as it has been stated above the United States today, if we are to put it mildly, has no enthusiasm for getting involved in such a scenario.

At the same time the United States would like to obtain the right to use the SDF in hypothetical conflicts in the regions of utmost importance for the US, for example, in the Persian Gulf. In such remote areas Japan is ready for an extremely limited involvement. For instance, to trawl minefields on sea routes of delivery of hydrocarbons. But in general, Japan is not ready to deploy the SDF in serious conflicts too far away from home.

It should be noted that the unclear interpretation of the “three new conditions” of deployment of the SDF that was issued by the government on July 1 causes uncertainty in Japan. On the eve of the local elections that will start next spring the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party seeks to avoid the national debate on the unpopular topic of expanding areas of operations of the SDF.

The legislation that should provide answers to all the questions that arise in society today due to the adoption of the right to collective self-defense can only be put forward in the next session, which starts in January 2015.

Japanese experts do not rule out the possibility that different interpretations in the field of mutual obligations, just like the Japanese own problem in the interpretation of the new terms of deployment of the SDF can stall the above-mentioned negotiations between the responsible officials of the two Ministries of Defence. This makes the prospect of drafting a new edition of the Guidelines of Japan-US cooperation till the end of the year as it was planned by the leaders of the two countries rather dim.

Finally, it should be noted that the problem of interpretations that appeared in the Japan-US  can be observed in a number of spheres, including the political and economic issues. For example, they re-appeared during the difficult negotiations on the conclusion of agreements on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

All this is only natural as Japan emerges as a global player with its own interests that do not always coincide with the American, while the political game in the Asia-Pacific region and around the globe becomes increasingly complicated.

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Center for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.