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US-Japan New Defence Cooperation Guidelines Contributes to Asian Security

Paper No. 5923                                 Dated 4-May-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

US-Japan New Guidelines for Defence Cooperation released on April 27 2015 marks the momentous advent of Japan asserting the right of collective self-defence as part of its National Security Strategy and Japan’s readiness in conjunction with the United States to play a proactive role in Asian security.

Japan under the ‘collective self -defence’ reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution initiated by Prime Minister Abe, is now open to assist its allies and even partners/ friends who are subjected to armed aggression which has a bearing on Japan’s own national security.

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe was already moving in the direction of strengthening Japan’s national security postures and architecture. This involved both conceptualisations of Japan’s strategic and military capabilities required to cope with Japan’s rapidly threatening security environment, realignment of Japanese force deployments and firming plans for the requisite military hardware acquisitions.

In true Japanese traditions, Prime Minister Abe has not shirked to take hard and bold decisions on Japan’s national security imperatives at a critical juncture. Not doing so would have sent a wrong message to those who in the last two years had resorted to political and military coercion of Japan. Japan would be the last nation to enter into any appeasement policies of nations adversarial to it.

As one surveys the Indo Pacific security environment the foremost strategic concern of the United States, Japan, India,, Vietnam and Philippines besides others is the conflict escalation in the South China Sea and East China Sea by China as a ‘revisionist power’. China instead of playing by the conventional rules of responsible international behaviour is hell-bent to write its own rules and coerce the nations of Asia Pacific into toeing them.

So while China has not been explicitly named in the US-Japan New Defence Guidelines, it is abundantly clear that the stimulus for revising these Guidelines after nearly twenty years is China’s emergence as a destabilising factor in East Asia specifically and Asia Pacific as a whole.

Expectedly, China has gone viral in its reactions of opposing the unveiling of the US-Japan New Defence Guidelines. China’s strident criticisms are surprisingly not aimed at the United States but at Japan. China is fully aware of Japan’s military asymmetries with China and also that Japan poses no threat to China.

But China is also aware that Japan is no ordinary nation which can be pushed around. Japan is a powerful contender of China along with India for Asian security primacy. Japan has on present reckonings one of the finest and powerful Navy in the Asia Pacific designed to deter any hostile power attempting to interdict Japan’s sea-lanes that traverse the South China Sea and East China Sea and further afield into the Indian Ocean and also the Pacific.

Japan’s Coast Guard is a ‘Second Navy’ of Japan in its own right to supplement the Japanese Navy in safeguarding Japan’s maritime interests.

When to the above is added the massive dedicated naval power of the US Pacific Navy and its Aircraft Carrier Groups, the combined naval forces of the United States and Japan surpass those of the Chinese Navy in all fields.

 It is this awesome naval combination when exercised with Japan’s right of collective self-defense further afield which has the potential to checkmate China’s expansive maritime ambitions.

So what is new in the US-Japan New Defence Guidelines that is agitating China so much?  The earlier Guidelines also covered virtually the same ground in terms of US-Japan joint responses and integrated and calibrated responses to maritime threats to Japan and United States security, basically earlier were Soviet Union-centric. Revisions took place with changing security environment in 1997 but in all these revisions, Japan’s role was limited to security of maritime expanses in Japan’s vicinity.

The US-Japan New Defence Guidelines are now China-centric in their conceptualisation and operationalisation. Two significant and major departures from the past need to be highlighted:

  • The United States has given an ‘Iron Clad’ guarantee to bring under the ambit of Article V of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty that the United States is committed to protect Japan against any aggression against the Senkaku Islands which China disputes.  Two years back China resorted to political coercion and military brinkmanship, which may have resulted in a limited conflict due to Chinese military provocations against Japan.
  •  Japan’s new strategies of ‘Dynamic Defence’ and ‘Extended Deterrence’ combined with the reinterpreted ‘Right of Collective Self Defence’ have been ‘strategic enablers’ for Japan to assist Japan’s allies and Japan’s friends against aggression from any quarter, when Japan perceives that such aggression could affect Japan’s national security.

The clear implication of the first named above factor is that it should impose abundant caution and deterrence on China to resort to use force in the Senkaku Islands of Japan.

The major implication of the second named factor is that Japan’s right of “Collective Self Defence” is not restricted geographically to the Asia Pacific though it has particular reference to the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In the spirit of what has been asserted in the public domain when the Guidelines were unveiled last month, it stands to reason that the South China Sea brinkmanship and conflict escalation by China might emerge as the first litmus test for the United States and Japan.

With the new strategic enunciations Japan has asserted its ‘strategic coming-out’ not only on the Asia Pacific stage but also to undertake global roles and power responsibilities. The new Guidelines will also focus joint attention by the United States and Japan on enhancing their military capabilities in cyber-warfare and space-warfare; both these domains have received special attention by China.

All in all, setting aside China’s opposition to these New Guidelines, two things need to be said on analysis. First that no opposition to this development is visible from anywhere across East Asia or South East Asia. Second, the US-Japan New Defence Guidelines would contribute greatly to Asian security as in its purist implementation it does not threaten the security of the smaller nations of East Asia and South East Asia militarily dwarfed by China’s not so peaceful rise. In intent, though not publicly stated, these New Guidelines would hopefully impose much needed restraint on China’s increasing military brinkmanship in the Indo Pacific.

 Japan’s “Strategic Coming out” when viewed in positive terms, and not through China’s distorted prism, adds a long overdue asset to correct the balance-of-power disequilibrium which was creeping in Asian security.

Concluding, it can be anticipated that China does not intend to be an idle spectator to the recently announced US-Japan New Defence Guidelines which challenge China’s intended and unrestrained sway in the Indo Pacific. China is likely to push the envelope to test the credibility of United States and Japan’s assertions arising from the US-Japan New Defence Guidelines. We can expect some China-generated turbulence and military brinkmanship both in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in times ahead.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at