After Tuesday's decision to reinterpret the Constitution to allow limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence, the government is now turning its attention to the Guidelines for Japan-US Defence Cooperation, which will be revised by the end of the year. The primary task will be to enable the Self-Defence Forces and the US military to operate seamlessly when dealing with any situation in a joint capacity, ranging from the seizure of a remote island that cannot be categorized as an armed attack to a full-blown incident.
US experts devised one scenario as an example of the possible challenges the SDF will need to be ready to deal with.
"A Chinese fishing boat runs aground within Japan's territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, and the crew comes ashore. China dispatches government ships in the name of protecting the fishermen, and declares it has established an exclusive military zone near the Senkakus. China warns that it will not rule out missile attacks and other steps against any vessel of other nations that ignore this order."
This scenario is based on the fact that Beijing is trying to improve its ability to launch a surprise attack that could involve ballistic and cruise missiles, and has resorted to intimidating behaviour in the South China Sea as it seeks to extend its maritime reach.
Under current Japanese law, it would be difficult to promptly certify that this incident equated to an armed attack.
Consequently, high hurdles would need to be cleared before a decision could be made to mobilize the Self-Defence Forces and retake the island in an operation where the use of force would be necessary. At the stage where the SDF is not mobilized, this scenario would not fall under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, which stipulates US defence obligations to Japan. Realistically, it is highly unlikely that the US military would jump to deal with this incident ahead of its ally.
As time ticks away while the Japanese police and the Japan Coast Guard consider their response, it is possible that China's "effective control" of the islands could become reality on the ground.
Tuesday's Cabinet decision regarding Japan's security legislation had such a worst-case scenario in mind. It spelled out that the government would examine means for enabling the SDF to react more quickly to such incidents through "public security operations" and "maritime security operations" based on its policing authority.