Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Japan Puuuuuuuuuuushes the Envelope on Collective Self Defense


US Pivot Hoisted on Japanese Petard Again

Via M. Taylor Fravel’s twitter feed I was introduced to this report from Yomiuri Shimbun Dec. 30, 2013.  I will quote at length:

Japan wants to join patrols of vital sea lanes with foreign forces and launch counter attacks if ships of other nations come under attack

Japan should be able to exercise the right to collective self-defence, in the event that a “grave situation that concerns the security of Japan” emerges while Self-Defence Force (SDF) ships, for example, are participating in joint patrols of key sea lanes for transporting crude oil and other essential items, says an outline of a report to be compiled by a government panel.
If the new interpretation is adopted, the SDF would be allowed to participate in joint patrols of vital sea lanes with foreign forces and launch counter attacks if ships of other nations came under attack. Japan would also be able to provide arms and ammunition or logistical support to U.S. forces in combat areas should an emergency occur near Japan.

According to Kitaoka, the panel members unanimously agreed that there should be conditions for allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence. For example, it should be exercised only when a nation with which Japan has close ties has unjustly come under attack and asks for Japan’s cooperation.

(Parenthetically, I should point out that the notoriously vulnerable sea lanes of the South China Sea, which Japan is offering to protect, are pretty much vital to nobody but China.  Japan has already studied the costs of avoiding the SCS to bring crude oil and iron ore to Japan—iron ore from Australia, I believe, already takes a Pacific route rather than through the SCS because of the size of the carriers—and determined it amounted to a less than apocalyptic 10% of the shipping costs.  But, as Visa would put it, cost of fomenting confrontation in SCS: priceless.)

Of course, this opens the door for Japan to conclude collective self-defense agreements with the Philippines, Taiwan, and perhaps (though unlikely) Vietnam.  However, the first candidate might be a bigger, more confident, and more secure PRC-tweaking power: India.

Outgoing PM Manmohan Singh is in Tokyo and the Japanese media reported that in a closed-door meeting with the Japanese Defense Minister (though, in my opinion, the Japanese government spins, distorts, and misleads the media to the point of recklessness, this particular report sounds rather plausible), Singh said he “understood” Prime Minister Abe’s “proactive pacifism” and had some more nice things to say about Japan’s security posture:

Japanese government officials said Onodera explained that Japan has exercised restraint in dealing with China, despite its maritime presence in the region and its establishment of the air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.

Singh reportedly praised Japan's behavior.

I can think of no better way for Japan to roll out the “other than US” collective self-defense concept than in cooperation with India.  We’ll see what happens.

Actually, I found Reuters had a similar piece on collective self defense from November, based on an interview with the same guy, Shinichi Kataoka.  Clearly, the Western media spadework is getting done:

Japan should change the interpretation of its constitution to allow its military to defend not only its ally, the United States, but also other countries whose interests are closely intertwined with Tokyo, a key security adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
The right to exercise collective self-defense should be applied "to any country which is very close to Japan", Shinichi Kitaoka, who is a member of a panel preparing a report for Abe on the topic, told Reuters in an interview this week.

"In other words, if that country is heavily damaged and that might bring a serious threat to Japan, then this is a situation in which Japan may consider exercising the right of collective self-defense."
Coming to the defense of Southeast Asian countries, several of which - like Japan - are engaged in territorial disputes with China, could be one of the scenarios that the change could address, Kitaoka said.

Another example Kitaoka cited was a threat to sea lanes of vital interest to Japan.

"If this is an attack on a Japanese vessel, this belongs to our right of individual self defense. If this invites big confusion, then this will belong to collective security under the U.N. umbrella," he said.
"If U.S. vessels or Australian vessels or Indian vessels which are protecting this sea lane were attacked and this has a very big impact on Japan, then Japan has the right to cooperate with those countries and remove it (the threat)."

Kitaoka rejected criticism that Japan's whittling away at constitutional limits on its military were making Article 9 meaningless. "Yes, you may argue that way. But the spirit will remain," he said.

"Japan will not have any weapons of mass destruction. Japan will not have weapons with long projection (capability) and Japan will limit the exercise of the right of collective self-defense to the minimum level."

Yes, I’m feeling the spirit.  The particular spirit in this case is that, once re-interpretation of the pacifist constitution has gutted it of its meaningful provisions, the eventual recission of Article 9 will simply be a matter of bringing an otherwise obsolete document in conformance with reality.

As to the “weapons of mass destruction” thing, color me cynical.  As I’ve written elsewhere, Japan—thanks to some dubious strategic thinking in the Pentagon under the color of protecting Japan from a global uranium shortage that never materialized—was allowed to “close the civilian nuclear power fuel cycle”, recovering plutonium from its nuclear spent fuel for eventual insertion into a breeder reactor to generate more fuel.  Now Japan has no working breeder reactor, but it does have more than five tons of plutonium metal sitting around in-country (enough for about 600 nuclear warheads), in addition to thirty-plus tons held at processing plants in France and Germany until it can be shipped over, and is also commissioning a glitch-filled reprocessing plant of its own at Rokkasho.  For readers doubtful about the significance of these steps, please read this letter by Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S.Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  And for those of you who don’t realize that reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make a bomb, that technology’s been around since the 1990s.  

Long story short, Japan has an immense stockpile of fissile material, and has spent billions developing a space program that is rather unnecessary in the civilian scheme of things, but quite useful for perfecting rocket and missile technology.  In other words, Japan is a threshold nuclear weapons power a lot closer to the goal line than Iran (in fact, it is speculated that Iran had modeled its tiptoe to the weaponization threshold on Japan’s precedent).

Going further back, Prime Minister Abe was rolling out the collective self-defense product after his sweeping electoral victory in the summer of 2013.

"Please imagine a situation where a U.S. warship protecting waters around Japan comes under a missile attack when our Aegis ship is nearby," Mr. Abe told reporters in July. "If we don't shoot it down despite our capability, the American ship will sink and many young lives will be lost. Can we maintain the alliance under such a circumstance? That's among the real questions we face."
Careful readers—and you exist, I know you do!—will note from this passage that back in September Mr.  Abe advertised collective self-defense as an aspect of Japan’s security cooperation with the United States, even though I hope that my tax dollars have equipped the Sixth Fleet to defend itself against a North Korean missile without the help of the Japanese Self Defense Force.  Then, with the camel’s nose in the tent, as it were, collective security quickly morphed into independent Japanese action on behalf of non-US allies.

Here’s another November piece at CSIS from a former higher-up in the Pentagon (Robin “Sak” Sakoda, previous director of the DoD’s Japan’s office and, we can speculate, sympathetic to the emergence of a militarily more assertive Japan).  It seems to be riffing off the original "Japanese collective self defense as adjunct to US military in Asia" framing and describes various US-friendly scenarios in which collective security would be a great thing.   

Sakoda is responding to a previous study by the “Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security”, which limited itself to four extremely specific and limited scenarios that incorporated Japan collective security actions into some kind of US-led or international effort. In my jaundiced view, the previous study and the CSIS piece itself were both attempts to cherry-pick some US-friendly scenarios to get collective self-defense on the agenda while evading the unnerving implications of Japan using collective self-defense to justify its own unilateral security strategy.

Here’s an interesting indication from the South Korean press that, while the Obama administration has not publicly endorsed Japan’s military reconstruction, the Pentagon, at least in November, has no worries about the the whole collective self defense package, including the Japanese counterattack on behalf of non-US allies thing:

A high-ranking official at the Pentagon met with the Korean press corps in the United States on November 18 (local time) and said that the US is in full support of Japan’s right of collective self-defense, considering it as Japan’s effort to contribute to regional security. The term can be defined as a right to launch a counterattack when any of its allies is subject to military attacks. 

“The US government welcomes Japan’s endeavor to contribute to regional security and peace in Northeast Asia by normalizing its role,” he said, adding, “We are considering that Japan can enhance its deterrent through a change in the interpretation of the constitution and, no matter what decision it makes down the road, it should be respected as a decision of a sovereign state.”

With regard to South Korea’s pessimistic view on the matter, he explained that he is well aware of the concerns, but Japan’s right of collective self-defense is a stronger deterrent against the challenges faced by the United States, South Korea, and Japan. 

Maybe the military brass, understanding that the US has no hope of achieving the hegemonic force levels of AirSea Battle on its own, overjoyed and grateful that the Abe administration is happy to stick the basing plan down Okinawa’s throat, and realizing that an aggressive Japanese posture is the only ticket to a dominating military presence in Asia for the United States, is willing to turn a blind eye to the new problems that a doctrinally and militarily assertive Japan bring with it.

I, for one, consider Abe’s management of the “collective self defense” public relations campaign a rather exquisite illustration of Japan’s ability to exploit the pivot—and the anti-China/pro-Japan narrative that underlies it—to pre-empt US criticism or input concerning Japan’s unilateral military plans.

But Japanese intentions become increasingly difficult to sweep under the carpet as the definition of “collective self defense” is refined and expanded, and it becomes more likely that Japanese “collective self defense” assistance in kicking Chicom butt in a mythical US-PRC war that will probably never happen is not the only or most likely game in town.

The clear Japanese yen to assist non-US forces by plastering their enemies should be a wake-up call, and warning to US policy makers that, if they believe that the role of Japanese military forces under collective self-defense will merely be to augment US muscle in US-led initiatives, they are living in a dream world (hopefully the alternative nightmare of US muscle augmenting Japan-sponsored adventures will also not materialize).

My considered (and rather concerned) opinion is that US planners, maybe on the civilian side, have been watching with interest and hopefully dismay as has Japan pushed the “collective self defense” envelope in recent months, realize what’s going on, and realize there’s nothing they can do about it.  It’s the biggest transformation of the Asian security environment since China’s opening to the West in the 1970s, and all the  U.S. can do is pretend that Japan’s military reconstruction fits in with the US Asian pivot, and hope that nothing goes wrong.

And, as we know, hope is not a plan…

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