Japan and the United States will start reviewing their defense cooperation guidelines to strengthen the alliance against China’s military buildup and North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
Foreign affairs and defense officials of both countries will open talks in Tokyo on the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation as early as Jan. 16.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also expected to use the review to push his plan to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Under the current Japanese government interpretation, the Constitution bans the exercise of that right.
The guidelines define the roles of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military if Japan comes under attack. They were initially put together in 1978 amid the Cold War to prepare for a possible invasion by the Soviet Union.
In 1997, when tensions were running high on the Korean Peninsula, the guidelines were expanded to state that Japan and the United States would cooperate in dealing with emergencies in areas surrounding Japan.
The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda planned talks in early December for an additional review, but North Korea’s rocket launch on Dec. 12 and other factors scrapped that plan.
The Lower House election on Dec. 16 ousted Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan from power.
Immediately after assuming office in late December, Abe instructed Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to prepare for a revision of the guidelines, the first since 1997.
The revision is expected to be one of the main themes at a foreign ministerial meeting in Washington on Jan. 18 on strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Momentum toward a revision is growing in Japan in light of its feud with China over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands and the new U.S. security strategy under the administration of President Barack Obama that puts emphasis on Asia.
Enhancing the alliance’s cooperation with Australia, South Korea, India and Southeast Asian nations will also be discussed.
Abe wants Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense as the main pillar of a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance. But he is not expected to make a hasty change in the government’s interpretation because such action could hurt his Liberal Democratic Party’s chances in the Upper House election scheduled for July.
Abe also argues that the SDF should be strengthened, and if the ban is lifted, the SDF’s role would change significantly.
During Abe’s first tenure as prime minister that started in September 2006, he set up a panel of experts on the ban. The panel in 2007 proposed that Japan should be allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense in response to attacks against the U.S. fleet on open seas and to intercept ballistic missiles fired toward the United States.
Abe plans to hear experts’ opinions again on the issue.
“We will review the guidelines, observing the prime minister’s direction,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.
Another subject in the review discussions will be the ban on SDF backup support activities that are considered “inseparable from the use of force.”
Japan limits the SDF’s rear-echelon activities and operation areas when providing logistics to troops of other countries using force overseas.
The government argues that such activities could violate Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces the threat or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
However, the United States said such limits would hinder SDF support for the U.S. military in dealing with emergencies in areas surrounding Japan.
“Backup support that does not use force, such as providing supplies, transport and medical care, should not be banned,” Abe’s panel has said.
But New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, has taken a cautious stance on these issues.
Japan and the United States are expected to include only a rough direction of the revisions in a document released by the end of 2013.
“It will take two to three years until we finally reach a conclusion,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
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