The United States government, be it the White House, the security strategists, the civilian leadership, or the military brass apparently has no qualms about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to affirm Japan’s right to practice “collective self defense” or CSD. In the face of public disapproval, resistance by the impotent political opposition, and gentle pushback from the LDP’s minority partner, Abe looks to implement collective self defense by asserting the government’s right to repurpose the provisions of the pacifist constitution without formal revision or reinterpretation, but through a simple statement by the Cabinet. US supporters have been cheering him on in this awkward process, like anxious soccer parents on the sidelines trying to will a clumsy toddler into nudging the ball into an empty net.
Whether or not this is a good idea, especially as it will permit Japan to restructure its security relationship with its future Asian allies without US mediation, history will, as they say, judge. But it looks like the United States is all in, on the basis that collective self defense will enable Japanese military forces to assist the US. I assume Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (term as ambassador and, indeed, total public career to date: three months) lacks the political or foreign policy throw-weight to freelance on key US-Japan issues, so this statement of support for collective self defense is probably an authoritative indicator of Obama administration preferences:
“Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked,” U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy told the Asahi newspaper in an interview published Jan. 23.
Prime Minister Abe dutifully sang from the same hymnal before the Diet on February 6:
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed Thursday that the country’s continued self-imposed ban on exercising its right to collective self-defense will adversely affect the Japan-U.S. alliance. Referring to a case in which Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels fail to counterattack when U.S. warships conducting joint activities come under attack, Abe said at a meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee, “The damage from the failure to the Japan-U.S. alliance is immeasurable.”
I am presuming that in the original Japanese the case Abe described was a hypothetical: susbstitute “if” for “when” and “would be” for “is.”
Questions of grammar and tense aside, this scenario is rubbish under the current pacifist constitution. The 1997 US-Japan Defense Guidelines explicitly and repeatedly mandate bilateral wartime operations, as can be seen from this useful table of responsibilities (Table 1).
The Self-Defense Force is, as the name implies, supposed to defend Japan, including US installations in Japan, but not the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The Seventh Fleet is designed to look after itself and is quite up to the task. The current structure of the US-Japan defense relationship is specifically and intensively structured to preclude the need for “collective self defense.” The contingency that a U.S. naval vessel will find itself getting mugged like a granny coming back from the store by a Chinese PLAN ship and will desperately need the help of the SDF is, to put it charitably, remote under current circumstances.
According Michael Cucek’s twitter feed, the head of the opposition DPJ, Banri Kaeida, put this very question to Prime Minister Abe during Diet question time. For a long time, the United States has been keen to enable certain joint US/Japanese operations under the current pacifist constitution, with the Japanese side moving beyond its traditional “only defend Japan” restrictions to provide benign, non-aggressive services such as minesweeping, reconnaissance, and ballistic missile defense, especially for new regional security missions only tangentially related to the defense of Japan. Scenarios for increased Japanese participation in joint activities while still within the bounds of the current constitution have been painstakingly parsed by American and Japanese strategists.
CSD would add another facet to this kind of operation. A joint flotilla could be sailing around outside Japanese waters, protecting sea lanes and whatnot, with the Japanese vessels sweeping mines, launching helicopters and surveillance planes, etc. in full pacifist constitution mode. Then, if things get ugly—for instance if a US vessel and equipment of an unnamed Asian power get into a scrape—then it’s Showtime! And the Japanese ships are free to blast away to protect the US ship, protect themselves, launch pre-emptive strikes…the list of kinetic operations possible under the label of collective self-defense is probably quite extensive.
With this sort of scenario in mind, perhaps US planners might believe that “collective self defense” kills two birds with one stone. First, it allows Japanese forces to be more easily and effectively integrated into new US regional missions beyond genuinely defensive ones; second, it keeps Japanese forces in a “defensive” posture, so the United States and countries around the region don’t have to worry about the Japanese military going off on independent military adventures. In other words, “collective self defense” gives the US the best of both worlds: Japan pulls its military weight in the alliance, but Japan’s military ambitions remain under the thumb of the pacifist constitution.
And, of course, there is AirSeaBattle, the fantasy war with the PRC scenario. It is tempting to speculate that the outlandishness of AirSeaBattle—which assumes a sneak attack by the PRC, a massive war of attrition between the US & the PRC that never goes nuclear because, well, then we couldn’t have AirSeaBattle and the Navy and Air Force deserve to have nice things—was an intentional feature designed to demonstrate that integration of US and Japanese military operations through collective self defense was the only feasible pathway to continued US military hegemony in the Western Pacific.
However, “the best laid plans of man and men and Powerpoint Rangers oft go agly” to paraphrase Robert Burns, and the Abe administration is already looking for ways to perform an active of strategic jiu jitsu and turn “collective self defense” into a potential instrument for independent Japanese action. The Abe administration’s architects of CSD have made it quite clear that they intend to apply collective self defense beyond the one nation with whom Japan currently has a formal alliance relationship, the US. The deeper game in “collective self defense” was frankly discussed by its architect:
Yousuke Isozaki, a special adviser to Abe on security policy, is spearheading the effort on collective self-defense and says the change will deepen security ties with the U.S. and allow Japan to reach out to other allies. “We want to be able to discuss security with friendly countries other than the U.S.,”he said in a Jan. 17 interview. “If we are bound hand and foot, we cannot talk. We cannot even say we will protect one another if something happens.”
In other words, “collective self defense” could be exercised in the aid of future allies, like India, the Republic of the Philippines, and Vietnam, all of whom are already eager partners in heightened security cooperation with Japan targeting the People’s Republic of China. Theoretically, therefore, the Philippines for instance could get into a scrape with the PRC over the Scarborough Shoal with the understanding that it could call on Japan for assistance. Furthermore, Japanese and US military strategists have already created a doctrinal template that can easily be transferred into a non-Japanese Asian security environment.
Aficionados of the causes of WWIII might want to bone up on the concept of “grey zone crises”—conditions that are neither peacetime nor wartime. This is apparently the formulation that Japanese military strategists and their opposite numbers at the Pentagon have been working off since the first Senkaku crisis in 2010 to characterize the friction with the PRC over various ocean matters.
Sugio Takahashi of the National Institute for Defense Studies has characterized China’s maritime activities, including but not limited to the Senkakus as a gray zone crisis. He takes as his premise the assertion that the PRC is not pursuing interests to be negotiated diplomatically with other stakeholders, but is exploiting perceived power vacuums.
The framing, of course, is important here. If the PRC is pursuing specific interests that it perceives to be important and legitimate, that’s a matter for engagement and negotiation. If, on the other hand, the PRC’s priority is to push competitors out of the west Pacific, the proper riposte is defiance, a refusal to discuss or compromise, deterrence, and—if deterrence is challenged—the convincing ability to retaliate.
In past months, quite noticeably the calls to confront China and eschew appeasement have become more strident. I leave it to observers to ponder whether this state of affairs reflects a fuller understanding of the PRC’s actual nefarious ambitions, or whether militant declarations are meant to obfuscate relatively routine PRC moves to define and regulate its maritime affairs, and foreclose engagement options in favor of a conflict narrative that is much more favorable to the joint Japanese and US security strategy.
The prescription for the problem, according to Mr. Takahashi, is “dynamic deterrence,” lots of flying and sailing around the sensitive area, intelligence gathering, and posturing by Japan to disabuse the PRC of the misconception that a power vacuum exists in Japan’s sovereign territory—which is pretty much the scenario we see around the Senkakus. The key, however, is that “dynamic deterrence”-which, it occurs to me is another one of those unintentionally revealing Abe oxymorons, like “active pacifism”- is backed up by “static deterrence”: the fact that US forces are on tap if Japanese forces do get involved in a military confrontation.
Takahashi described how the “gray zone crisis” is supposed to play out.
…East China Sea…current situation is unfolding in the gray-zone…Japan will take care of the current situation by herself as long as it continues to be in gray-zone. However, if it escalates to a military conflict, the situation will drastically change and fall under “Article Five” in the Security Treaty, where the two militaries will cooperate operationally. In this case, he primary player will be the SDF, and assistance from the U.S. to Japan is to be expected.
And, in case you are wondering, Takahashi apparently doesn’t think that the gray zone formula is only relevant for areas where Japan claims sovereignty. Takahashi concludes:
[G]ray-zone crisis is also applicable to the South China Sea…The development of a permanent body as well as procedures for operational cooperation and coordination will give additional flexibility to deal with challenges in the gray-zone.
If the “dynamic deterrence” in “gray zone crisis” formula is applied to future security agreements between Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam, and/or India as Japanese strategists already wish to apply them to the US relationship, then the priority in the South China Sea will evolve from “managing friction” to “preserving credible deterrence,” a rather risky state of affairs.
As to whether the Philippines would be more likely to pursue a confrontational policy with the PRC as a result of the prospect of Japanese back-up, I would have to say Yes. In fact, I consider the Philippines’ adoption of the inflammatory Hitler/Sudetenland rhetoric against the PRC part and parcel of a strategy to foreclose the possibility that the Philippines will be called upon to negotiate an arrangement with its overbearing neighbor (nobody negotiates with Hitler, after all) and justify a security arrangement with Japan that puts a couple of sizable bricks in the China-containment wall.
In fact, as the name implies, the whole concept of “collective self defense” can be seen as a strategy to further institutionalize alliances to negate the PRC’s preferred posture of resolving its various regional issues bilaterally, quietly, and to the PRC’s advantage. One might add that this strategy carries with it the greater potential that disputes with the PRC—now carefully conducted through maritime patrol vessels as peacetime sovereignty issues—will become militarized under the “deterrence” doctrine.
“Collective self defense” would allow the “dynamic/static deterrence” template to be applied to Asia, with Japan assuming the role of “static deterrent” backstop in place of the United States. It’s a lower-risk strategy that placates the United States, avoids the political and diplomatic minefield of constitutional revision, and dodges the high profile hassle and risk of acting as the front-line military power, but is at the same time an important practical step in Japan’s recovery of full military sovereignty.
This potential goes a long way to explaining why Prime Minister Abe might be willing to pay the political cost of pushing through “collective self defense” even though Japanese voters are cool on the idea and it seems to have only marginal significance within the context of the US-Japan alliance. One might argue whether applying the “dynamic deterrence” formula to non-US alliances is good, bad, or indifferent—ever since Secretary of State Clinton was running the show, the basic assumption has been that an atmosphere of tension produces a virtuous cycle of action and Chinese reaction which pushes more Asian countries in the US camp, and therefore should not be discouraged- but it should in any evaluation be a focus of US concern.
After all, the alliance arrangement in the Pacific to date is hub-and-spoke, with the US as the hub and Japan, the ROK, and the Philippines as the spokes. With the creeping restoration of full Japanese military sovereignty and a sour regional attitude (quietly encouraged by Japan, I think) that Japan and the Asian democracies can no longer rely completely on Uncle Sam’s long term mettle and have to look to themselves i.e. the spokes are thinking of dealing more directly with each other, I would have thought that the United States might have some mental reservations endorsing the whole collective self-defense posture. One assumes that strategic thinkers in the US military/think tank complex have some kind of a handle on this.
However, I don’t see any public acknowledgement that, by supporting collective self defense they are potentially disintermediating the United States in the restructuring of the Asian security regime and putting a powerful lever in the hands of the Japanese government. I also reached out to two eminences in Asian security for comment, and they both stated that the potential for Japanese security freelancing in the context of “collective self defense” did not concern them. So it’s just me. Obviously CSD is a done deal now. All that remains is the public relations rubbish, in other words the hyping of the China threat to justify some rather brisk, borderline constitutionally shady executive measures to assert the Japanese prerogative to “collective self defense.”
Prime Minister Abe has assiduously cultivated the China threat narrative and, if a recent report from Mainichi Shinbun concerning the infamous PRC ADIZ is accurate, has been cynically provoking it with the acquiescence of the US over the last few years. English language readers can get the story, thanks to the Shingetsu News Agency:
The Mainichi Shinbun obtained secret documents of the Defense Ministry (fortunately for them, and the public, the new secrets law is not yet in force to suppress such inconvenient information), which reveal that senior PLA officers had told their Japanese counterparts in May 2010 that they had established the ADIZ in the East China Sea, and that they were moving toward making it public in the future. Moreover, they invited dialogue with the Japan Self-Defense Forces on how the two countries’ overlapping ADIZs might be managed in order to reduce the possibility of mishaps. Moreover, the Japanese government was, according to the Mainichi Shinbun, well aware “in early 2013” that “final preparations” for the announcement of the Chinese ADIZ were underway. We can safely surmise that if the Japanese government knew the declaration was forthcoming, that the US government, with its vast intelligence agencies, was also aware of it.
So the announcement of the Chinese ADIZ may have been a “surprise” to the general public, but it was certainly not a surprise to either the Japanese nor the US governments, which had in fact been tipped off by the PLA itself several years earlier.
What emerges, therefore, is not the sudden, aggressive, unilateral action by the Chinese government that has been so vividly portrayed by the world’s media for the last couple months, but rather a careful, longterm process that culminated in the November 2013 public declaration. It is also worth noting that in June 2010 — one month after the Japanese were informed by China of their intention to establish a large, overlapping ADIZ in the East China Sea — the Japanese government announced (unilaterally) an expansion of its own ADIZ in the East China Sea by 22 kilometers in order to include Yonaguni Island.
So the real story of the ADIZ (which in my opinion also resembles the real story of the Captain Zhan uproar of 2010 and the Senkaku purchase of 2013 in its lineaments of Machiavellian plotting and, I might add, prestige media gormlessness in the face of the determined and less-than-100%-honest Japanese government PR operation) is that the Abe administration had been notified of the PRC’s plans, sandbagged the PRC by waiting for the announcement in order to vociferously attack it, and used it to hype an exaggerated China threat and grease the skids for collective self defense, all with the apparent collusion of the US. Or, as the Bloomberg article put it: “What is lucky for the Abe administration is that China set up the ADIZ,” said the LDP’s Hirasawa, who tutored Abe as a child. “That proves that what the Abe administration has been saying is correct. China is taking a stronger and stronger stance.”
What luck, indeed.