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The US and Japanese Militaries Just Got a Little Bit Friendlier

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's effort to expand his military's global reach just got a shot in the arm from a deal he has reached with the US government.
May 1, 2015, 7:25pm
Photo via Flickr

More than 70 years after the Pearl Harbor attack and the US military's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, a Japanese head of state spoke before a joint session of the US Congress for the first time ever.

Over the course of 48 minutes on Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke to the assembled senators and representatives as well as the world at large about the relationship between the United States and Japan. He spoke of the miracle of two one-time mortal enemies standing together in friendship and of deep repentance for the horrors of World War II. He spoke in detail about the value of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an Asian trade alliance that includes Japan, the US, and 10 other Pacific nations (but not, significantly, China).

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Perhaps the most significant moment came in the middle of his speech, when Abe talked about the "new framework" he had arranged with President Obama over the use and deployment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).

Related: The Japanese Military is Getting Offensively Cute

That framework, known as the Joint Defense Guidelines (JDG) — or the "U.S.-Japan Joint Vision Statement," as the White House Office of the Press Secretary calls it — isn't actually a new treaty at all. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan, which dates to 1960, remains in effect, and neither party seems likely to discontinue it anytime soon.

What has changed is how both the US and Japan interpret that treaty. Until now, the agreement has been fairly one-sided. The US was obligated to defend Japan in the event of Japan's coming under attack by a foreign power. Japan, however, being constitutionally barred from even having a military (technically, they have a very heavily armed constabulary), could do little to aid the US in return.

Over the years, however, that relationship has become more balanced. The development of the JSDF into a sizable, high-quality military force has enabled Japan to reciprocate, including the deployment of JSDF troops to Iraq for a humanitarian mission from 2004 to 2006. Since then, Japanese Prime Ministers have opted to interpret the humanitarian support in support of an American-led mission abroad as consistent with the defense of Japan and within the limits of Japan's constitution.

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The new guidelines agreed to this week by Abe and Obama take that relationship to the next level. By embracing the concept of "collective self-defense," the new framework allows the JSDF to support American troops who are engaged in the assistance of other nations. More specifically, the change is that now Japanese forces can be deployed in combat support roles like air patrols or logistical support, which could conceivably turn into a combat mission. It's the difference between showing up in a war zone with boxes of food and showing up locked-and-loaded.

Related: US Veterans Want Japan's Prime Minister to Apologize to Congress

This is especially important in light of the other reason for Abe's visit, to voice support for the TPP. By making this agreement with Obama while at the same time encouraging acceptance of the TPP, Abe is signaling Japan's commitment to not only the economies of the TPP partners, but also perhaps to their defense; quite a step forward for a nation that isn't allowed to have a military in the first place.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with Abe's speech. While Abe expressed remorse for the American dead of World War II, he stopped short of admitting Japan's culpability for the war in the Pacific, nor did he address the war crimes committed by Japan against Korean and Chinese citizens in territory occupied by Japan.

Both China and South Korea were quick to condemn the lack of a full apology. Even some Americans found the speech didn't go far enough, especially the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, who had already called on Abe for a full apology. The veterans' group expressed their disappointment in what they see as Abe's half-measures.

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Nor is Abe getting off scot-free at home. Abe's approval rating in Japan dropped after the speech, and more people disapprove of the new guidelines there than support it. Part and parcel of Abe's agreement with Obama was the requirement that any military action by the JSDF would have to be supported by the Japanese legislature. While Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is in control right now, things shift quickly in Japanese politics.

Abe and the LDP took back control of the legislature in 2012 after three years out of power. Even when one party holds sway for a long period, as with the LDP's previous uninterrupted run from 1996 to 2008, the position of prime minister can change hands often. Indeed, during that time there were seven elections for prime minister in that 12-year stretch. However much Abe wants to permanently alter the course of the Japanese ship of state, he may not stay in office long enough to do so.

Related: Japan and China: Building Up or Backing Down Over Disputed Islands?

Among Japan's neighbors, China in particular has reason to be unhappy. Not only is China not included in the TPP, but they are the only logical opponent for a united Japanese-American military (barring, of course, an act of lunacy by the North Koreans). Given the numerous territorial disputes between China and her neighbors, including Japan, over places such as the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, evidence that Japan and the US will not only support one another but also may support other nations in conflict with China cannot be considered welcome news in Beijing.

The Chinese will have their chance to express their feelings over this new accord directly to Obama himself. Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Washington in September. One can't help but suspect that Japan's new guidelines will come up during the discussions.

Follow Jonathan Gad on Twitter: @jng2058

Photo via Flickr