New Komeito: if Japan enters a combat zone, turn right ‘round and come on home
18 Jun 2014|

Graduates of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Officer Candidate School salute their instructors and family members as they prepare to sail off to their prospective ships.Big things are afoot in Tokyo, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government nears a milestone in its attempts to make Japan a more normal country on national defence. Abe wants to allow Japan limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence, through reinterpretation of country’s pacifist constitution. His party, the LDP, is in intensive discussions with its coalition partner, New Komeito, in order to get a final deal approved by 22 June. The United States will accept and support whatever results from Japan’s sovereign democratic process—especially as any progress on the long-time sticking point of collective self-defence is better than none. But in a disappointing development, the LDP appears to have made a concession that forecloses an immense opportunity to advance the US–Japan alliance to new levels of coordination, interoperability and, ultimately, efficacy.

At issue is what is called ‘integration with the use of force’ in situations where Japan hasn’t come under direct attack. The question is whether, in a regional contingency—think Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or even a Malacca Strait crisis—the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) could operate in support of US forces conducting combat operations. Current laws and regulations limit the JSDF to providing ‘rear area support,’ such as replenishment, refueling, and data sharing, only in non-combat zones; as soon as shooting starts, the JSDF must steam away. Abe sought to extend the provision of rear area support to combat zones as well, but he appears for the moment to have given up on this particular point, with the exception of search and rescue operations. Keeping the JSDF almost completely out of contested spaces might make political sense to get New Komeito’s buy-in on this and other important issues, but it foregoes a potential operational windfall for the US–Japan alliance as a whole.

To be clear, no one is talking about the JSDF firing shots after the initiation of hostilities to which Japan isn’t a party. Moreover, the JSDF might yet be able to bring serious capabilities, including minesweeping in international sea lanes, to bear in coalition efforts. But legal walls are preventing the alliance from integrating Japan’s formidable capabilities in a more effective way. In particular, should the Abe government’s ambitious December 2013 defense budget stick, it’ll mean significant upgrades to critical C4ISR capabilities that are by and large interoperable with US forces: the JSF, Aegis destroyers, Global Hawk drones, new or upgraded AWACS and airborne early warning aircraft, and so on. Were the JSDF permitted to support US forces in contested spaces, it could integrate its ‘seers’ into American operations, freeing up US assets to go be ‘shooters.’ Beyond targeting, the JSDF could play an important role in supplementing US capacity for lift, sustainment, replenishment, and repair. That’s particularly important at a time when sequestration threatens future US Navy and Air Force procurements.

The LDP’s combat zone concession to New Komeito likely scuppers any such arrangements during the once-in-a-generation review of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines, scheduled to end this year. In return, Abe appears to have gotten compromise on streamlined coordination between the national command authority, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Maritime Self-Defense Forces to respond to ‘gray zone’ events, encroachments on Japan’s interests that stay below the military threshold. While that would help to address China’s tailored coercion strategy in the East China Sea, giving up ‘combat zone’ support means relinquishing serious enhancements to joint alliance capabilities.

Negotiations aren’t over until they’re over, but if present reports are accurate, the question then becomes: so what? In the Big Fight—the nightmare scenario involving a certain Asian continental power to the west, which no one wants to see—those distinctions may become irrelevant, as ‘some countries’’ military strategies necessitate attacks against US operational nodes residing on Japanese soil. Or, because the US is unlikely to initiate hostilities in the Asia-Pacific, a hypothetical initial attack against US forces could generate an emergency request for JSDF assistance that may be allowed under the reinterpreted rules. Either way, Japan enters the fray. And as long as Abe can demonstrate some new ability to assist US forces in emergencies, he’ll achieve his goal of demonstrating Japan’s resolve and political commitment to Washington and the alliance.

But the way one plans to fight affects the way one plans and trains, and the demonstration effects thereof: if the US and Japan increase practising to fight not merely in adjacent areas, but rather in a truly integrated manner, it’ll enhance the deterrent power of the alliance overall. Why should Tokyo take half measures when it can take full ones?

New Komeito and its allies’ commitment to peace is admirable but short-sighted. The common refrain in such quarters is that preparing for war invites war. Still, that approach might be insufficient. Japan’s return to normalcy will and should be incremental. But China’s military modernisation is incremental too, only those increments might be much larger (PDF). At the risk of being sententious, Japan might not be interested in war, but war could be interested in Japan.

Alexander Sullivan is a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. His views are his and his alone, along with any errors of fact or omission. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.