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Tadae Takubo

【#785】Japan’s Commitment to Military Contributions Being Tested

Tadae Takubo / 2021.04.21 (Wed)

April 19, 2021

Japanese newspapers might have exhausted all possible comments about the latest Japan-U.S. summit. The summary of its significance is that the Biden administration has won Japan’s commitment to play more important roles in the U.S. policy on China. The time is coming for the Japanese government to implement the commitment. Aspiring politicians should take this opportunity to develop Japan into a full-fledged nation.

The U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement released after the summit on April 16 says: “Japan resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security… [Japan and the United States] resolved to conclude in a timely manner a meaningful multi-year Host Nation Support agreement to ensure the stable and sustainable stationing of the U.S. forces in Japan.” It may not be strange for a country to bolster its defense capabilities. But I think this is an unusually courageous expression of determination for Japan that has demonstrated allergy to international military contributions.

Some in LDP indicate hesitancy

The U.S. Democratic Party had included a “weak Japan” faction that had called for preventing Japan from becoming militarily stronger in the context of Japan-U.S. security cooperation. In the face of military, political, economic, technological and ideological challenges from China, however, the Biden administration might have had no choice but to make Japan a key player in Asia. In this sense, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga can be highly appreciated for having made a great decision in making the commitment.

The problem is how Japan would implement the commitment. A sense of crisis grew within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when China put into effect its new coast guard law empowering the China Coast Guard to take any measures required including use of force against any infringement on China’s sovereignty or jurisdiction. When the LDP’s National Defense Division proposed to amend the Japan Coast Guard Act in response to the Chinese law, however, its Land, Infrastructure and Transport Division in charge of the Japan Coast Guard opposed the proposal. The LDP made an ambiguous conclusion that new legislation would be considered if necessary.

Accidentally, Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers at their “2 plus 2” meeting on March 16 reaffirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, indicating that a similar reaffirmation may come at the April 16 summit. Did the LDP then assume that the crisis regarding the Senkakus came to an end? Members of the LDP Land, Infrastructure and Transport Division might still be unwilling to provoke China.

High hurdles to Japan-U.S. joint operations

What would the Japanese government do in response to a Taiwan contingency? Does it intend to limit Japan’s actions to logistic support for U.S. forces by concluding that such contingency would seriously affect Japan’s peace and safety but fall short of threatening its survival? Could the Japanese Self-Defense Forces conduct the same operations as U.S. forces for their cooperation?

The relationship between politicians and the SDF is a matter of concern. On the occasion of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, a leftist local governor refrained from requesting to mobilize the SDF for disaster-relief operations. But some local government chiefs now easily ask the SDF not only for disaster relief but for distributing water for drivers stuck in a traffic jam due to heavy snowfall. Disaster-relief operations are one of the SDF’s missions but not any main reason for the SDF’s existence, said the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in his book, “World and Japan,” published in 1961. For Japan that has failed to clarify the relationship between politicians and the military, it may not be easy to let the SDF work with foreign forces.

Tadae Takubo is Vice President, Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and a professor emeritus at Kyorin University.