Correction 5/10/2016: Added “East Sea” in addition to “Sea of Japan” in response to a naming dispute between South Korea and Japan.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter met with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and several other Japanese officials to review and finalize a set of bilateral defense rules which will, officials say, transform U.S. military ties with Japan.
The new set of guidelines expands the ability of the Japanese Self-Defense Force to act in the region, giving the Japanese the ability to act in the defense of U.S. military assets in the area.
This is, “a big, big deal,” according to an anonymous defense official speaking to the Washington Post, and it’s easy to understand why.
After World War II, the Japanese agreed to forfeit their right to a military and eventually were allowed to have a standing “self-defense force,” which was limited to defensive operations strictly within Japanese territory.
Although there have been modifications of this agreement since its creation in 1954, the requirement that the JSDF operate only within Japanese waters and lands and only in direct defense of the country of Japan, have remained constant.
Now, however, the JSDF will be free to act in defense of American military forces throughout the region, even if the country of Japan is not under attack.
This means that Japanese naval vessels, aircraft and missile defense systems will be able to “reach out” and protect U.S. interests.
The expansion of Japanese defensive capabilities is a boon to both parties, who feel equally threatened by expanding Chinese interests in the region and North Korean missile threats.
The agreements arrive in the midst of aggressive Chinese expansion into the South China Sea and increasing Chinese interest in the Sea of Japan or East Sea.
The development of the Chinese military is an increasing worry for the Japanese as well, and the conservative Abe has been investigating new ways to mobilize Japanese military potential.
Though the U.S. is less threatened by Chinese aggression, it still has many interests in the area, not the least of which is containing China.
The move to allow Japanese forces to work in tandem with American forces presents the U.S. with a new option for such containment as well as more versatility in both military and non-military operations in the region.
The new guidelines have a long-term benefit for Japan as well; once the rules go into effect, the Japanese will be much closer to equal defensive partners with the U.S. than they previously were.
It would be the first step on the road to establishing Japan as a peer to the U.S., rather than a protectorate.
Whether Japan will capitalize on this, or if it even desires to, is yet to be seen, but the new guidelines provide a potential springboard for a Japanese military that is more committed to and engaged in global affairs.