The United States and Japan agreed new rules for defense cooperation on Monday that will give Tokyo’s armed forces a more ambitious, global role amid concerns over China’s rising influence.
Under the revised “guidelines,” Japan could come to the aid of US forces threatened by a third country or perhaps deploy minesweeper ships to a mission in the Middle East, officials said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani were due to unveil the new rules in New York.
Although officials would not say so publicly, concern over China’s increasing power and reach provided the main impetus for Japan’s move.
The guidelines marked a new era in defense relations between the Tokyo and Washington, a day before the White House hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a high-profile visit.
Monday is “an important day in the US-Japan alliance,” a senior US defense official told reporters. “These guidelines eliminate the geographic restriction on US-Japan cooperation.”
Under previous rules, Japanese forces could assist American troops only if they were operating in the direct defense of Japan.
The amended guidelines were drawn up to reflect a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution by Abe’s government last year, which allows for “collective defense.”
“It means that Japan can defend US ships engaged in missile defense activities in the vicinity of Japan,” the official said.
“It means that Japan can respond to attacks on third countries if they are in close association with Japan and if those attacks directly affect Japanese security,” he said.
One possible scenario could have Japan shooting down a missile headed towards the United States, even if Japan itself was not under attack, officials said. And the guidelines would allow Japan to carry out reconnaissance for enemy missiles in an area “beyond its shores.”
The reinterpretation of the constitution and the new defense guidelines are part of Abe’s bid to soften Japan’s constitutional commitment to pacifism. The United States imposed the principle after World War II but now strongly supports Japan’s new approach.
Tokyo’s readiness to embrace what Abe calls “proactive pacifism” comes amid growing anxiety in Japan and across Asia over China’s rising military and economic might.
With Japan locked in a tense territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea, the strengthened defense arrangements with America offer a degree of reassurance for Tokyo, experts said.
The guidelines reiterate an “ironclad” US commitment to defending Japan, and that the islands fall under the scope of the treaty – a position American officials have stated previously.
For Washington, the new guidelines could make Japan a more active and equal military partner, able to support US-led operations elsewhere and cooperate more closely on missile defense, cyber security and surveillance satellites.