Japan-US pact to enter new stage

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Cabinet members attend a Cabinet meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"The Japan-US alliance will enter into a different sphere, as the exercise of the right of collective self-defence will become a great deterrent."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could hardly contain himself as he made this comment to his aides in late June, as the government saw its prospects of changing the interpretation of the Constitution to allow the nation to exercise this right brighten.

Abe sometimes complains that the administration of US President Barack Obama is too close to China.

However, considering that China has repeatedly carried out provocative and aggressive actions around Japanese territory and North Korea continues to develop ballistic missiles and other weapons, Japan has no alternative but to deepen the Japan-US alliance through joint military exercises and the unification of operation plans to handle emergencies.

"In several years, it may become impossible to protect the Senkaku Islands only with the Maritime Self-Defence Force. It will be too late when such a situation becomes a reality," Abe reportedly said.

At the risk of criticism within the country, Abe pushed forward efforts to change the constitutional interpretation.

Besides his wariness over the rise of China and outbursts from North Korea, Abe sought to realise the reinterpretation of the Constitution because he felt the US position as "world policeman" had eroded.

'Not friends'

When Abe spoke of changing the constitutional interpretation, he often said, "If someone cannot help his or her friend, they are not friends."

The prime minister obviously meant that when the Japan-US alliance based on trust is undermined, the alliance will become a worthless piece of paper.

When Obama visited Japan in April, Abe spoke with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who had accompanied Obama. Abe mentioned the example of "friends," and explained that under the current constitutional interpretation, Japan could not protect US vessels carrying civilians escaping some disaster. In response, Rice reportedly said such a relationship could not be called an alliance, and she called on the prime minister to push forward with the review of the constitutional interpretation concerning the exercise of the right of collective self-defence.

At a press conference Tuesday, Abe mentioned a statement by a US high-ranking official that encouraged him to work on the issue. "I was urged to seriously consider whether the US public would continue to trust Japan if a Self-Defence Forces' vessel did not take any action when a nearby US vessel that was protecting Japan came under attack."

Inward-looking US

While China has been increasing maritime activities in the East and South China seas, the United States adopted a "rebalance" policy, in which it placed greater military and diplomatic emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. Under the policy, the United States is set to expand the share of its naval assets in the Pacific to 60 per cent of the global fleet by 2020 while distributing operational units of the US Marine Corps to Okinawa, Guam and other places.

However, the global power of the United States is said to be declining. In the event of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the handling of the issue by the Obama administration was criticised for its inward-looking attitude. When the use of chemical weapons was confirmed in Syria in August last year, Obama postponed a decision to launch air strikes despite having previously making such a decision, giving the impression that US power is on the wane.

At a joint press conference on April 24 after the Japan-US summit meeting, Obama said Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, which stipulates US defence obligations to Japan, covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands. Asked by a reporter about a "red line" on a possible US military action, however, Obama said, "There's no 'red line' that's been drawn."

That night, Abe reportedly expressed his disappointment to his close aides saying, "On such a day as this, Obama didn't need to make statements that sounded like he was tiptoeing around China."

While the second Abe Cabinet increased defence-related spending for the second consecutive year, there are limitations to increasing staff members and military equipment because of the current difficult fiscal conditions. In order to strengthen deterrence, Japan should exercise its the right of collective self-defence and then conduct joint operations with the United States to handle possible emergencies to ensure US involvement in the defence of Japan. Abe thought such a scenario would be most realistic.

Based on Tuesday's Cabinet decision, the Japanese and US governments will revise the Japan-US Defence Cooperation Guidelines at the end of this year. The SDF and the US armed forces will be able to conduct more operations together.

"The MSDF will be involved in the operations of the US Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka [Kanagawa Prefecture]," Abe reportedly said to his close aides. "That will have significant meaning."