Japan’s prime minister takes to the White House Monday a pledge to expand Tokyo’s role in regional security, a significant shift for a country whose pacifist constitution has limited its military activities outside its borders for more than 60 years.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s message will be welcome news for his host, President Barack Obama, who is seeking to rebalance the US defense posture toward Asia. The American leader faces the challenge of countering China’s rising military power and taming North Korea’s nuclear ambitions even as the Pentagon’s budget shrinks amid pressure for fiscal austerity. US officials are counting on Japan, America’s biggest ally in the region, to step up its own activities to enhance American clout.
“Japan will promote…enhancement of its defense posture in the area, including the Southwestern Islands, in coordination with the US strategy of focusing on the Asia-Pacific region,” Mr. Noda told The Wall Street Journal, referring to a chain of islands in the East China Sea over which China and Japan have clashed. “We will enhance security and defense cooperation between Japan and the US”
The change in Japan’s strategy — though still modest — was demonstrated in a joint statement issued by the two nations Friday. While the focus was the reshuffling of US troops stationed on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa, it included a number of concrete measures that would spread Japan’s military presence throughout the region.
The two nation will develop the American-controlled Pacific island of Guam as “a strategic hub” and consider building joint training facilities there and on nearby islands — a move that would establish for the first time a permanent Japanese military presence on US territory. Mr. Noda said one possible location would be the Northern Mariana Islands. American planes took off from there at the end of World War II to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“This kind of effort will lead to further enhancement of interoperability through the broadening of bilateral dynamic defense cooperation,” Japan’s leader told the Journal. Mr. Noda’s comments came in response to written questions submitted by the Journal last week. His written answers were provided Friday by a spokesman.
Japans’ postwar constitution forbids the use of arms in international conflict, but its Self-Defense Forces have slowly increased their role overseas in recent years, prodded by the US They’ve taken part in peacekeeping operations and supported functions such as the refueling of coalition ships during the Iraq War. The SDF recently opened its first overseas base, in Djibouti, to aid in fighting piracy.
Mr. Noda, who took office in September, is the first prime minister to visit Washington for an official bilateral meeting since his Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009. The DPJ broke nearly half a century of one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, which was long valued in Washington for preserving and expanding the US-Japan alliance during the Cold War.
The Noda-Obama agenda will range broadly, including subjects such as regional trade agreements and strategies on North Korea and Afghanistan as well as defense cooperation. A senior Obama administration official told reporters Friday that a primary goal of the meeting will be to “set out their common vision for the partnership and for the alliance throughout the 21st century” — an effort hampered by frequent changes in Japanese leadership. Mr. Noda will meet Mr. Obama at the White House Monday morning, followed by a working lunch. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will host a gala dinner.
Japan’s new eagerness to contribute to regional security and amplify the American regional role comes as nations in the Western Pacific grow increasingly nervous about China’s rising military power. Australia has agreed to host 2,500 US Marines in Darwin, while Singapore plans to station several US Navy warships for joint drills region-wide. The Philippines is also negotiating to increase local presence of US military.
Mr. Noda, while calling his country’s ties to China “one of the most significant bilateral relations for us,” said in the written interview that he remains cautious about Japan’s increasingly powerful neighbor. He said that Japan’s expanded military efforts around Asia “are not aimed at any particular country or region,” but continued in the same answer to say that “we encourage China’s responsible and constructive role on regional and global issues and its adherence to international norms of behavior.” He added: “We call for improvement of transparency with respect to China’s military modernisation and activities.”
With an eye on China’s naval buildup and North Korea’s missile firings, Japan in late 2010 updated its defense guidelines to emphasise maritime and air surveillance, island defense and beefing up cooperation with allies, including the US
Giving such cooperation a further push, Japan in December ended a four-decade ban on weapons shipments. Tokyo has also recently pledged to rejigger its official development aid to emphasise strategic purposes, such as by giving patrol boats to coastal states in the region. That has enabled Japan to provide other nations with military equipment without increasing its defense spending. Tokyo is currently looking into providing patrol ships to the Philippines.
At $59.3 billion, Japan’s defense budget in 2011 was the sixth-largest in the world and the second largest in Asia after China, according to Stockholm International Peach Research Institute.
“How to find smart and effective solutions when money is tight is a common theme between the US and Japan, and other allies,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, director of policy research at Tokyo Foundation, a private think tank.
Closer cooperation from allies like Japan is exactly what the US is looking for. When Mr. Obama in January proposed a historic shift in the US defense strategy to increase emphasis on Asia as it winds down long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his plan came with an 8 percent cut in the nation’s military spending over 10 years.
“A reduction in resources will require innovative and creative solutions to maintain our support for allied and partner interoperability and building partner capacity,” the defense department said in a statement as Mr. Obama initiated the review of the strategy.
Japan is seeking also to strengthen its economic ties with the US The two leaders will discuss an ambitious regional free-trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that aims in principle to eliminate all tariffs among member nations. The US is among a handful of nations trying to complete TPP talks before the end of the year. Japan’s participation would expand the agreement significantly and also aid its exporters, but strong domestic opposition, particularly from farmers and farm lobbies, has kept Tokyo from making commitments needed to join the talks. US lawmakers want Japan to further liberalise its market in areas such as agriculture, autos and insurance before joining the talks.
Mr. Noda said it was “significantly important that Japan and the US work together” to spur regional economic growth and to establish trade and investment rules, but he fell short of declaring his commitment to join the TPP talks. -By Yuka Hayashi