May 4, 2017 10:00 am JST

Escort mission ushers the US-Japan alliance into a new era

SDF ship guards an American supply vessel in a message to North Korea

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator

TOKYO The alliance between Japan and the U.S. has reached a new stage, after the Japanese Self-Defense Forces kicked off their first peacetime escort of an American warship. The move takes the partnership beyond joint drills and policy coordination, and marks a step toward cooperation in times of conflict.

With tensions on the Korean Peninsula running high, the Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier Izumo left the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, on the morning of May 1. The mission, ordered by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, is intended to demonstrate a robust U.S.-Japan alliance and deter the regime in Pyongyang from further provocations.

North Korea on April 29 attempted to test-fire a ballistic missile, though the launch was a failure.

The Izumo's mission is the first of its kind since Japan enacted security legislation allowing such actions in March last year. Under the law, the SDF can provide protection for U.S. forces in ordinary times, using the minimum amount of weaponry necessary to get the job done.

The Izumo rendezvoused with a U.S. supply vessel in the Pacific Ocean and escorted it toward the waters off Shikoku, in western Japan. The American ship is expected to provide, among other things, fuel to U.S. Navy vessels currently on North Korea deterrence duty near Japan. That could include the strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which entered the Sea of Japan on April 29.

TWO-WAY STREET The SDF mission comes after a series of phone calls between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The leaders touched base three times in April to discuss a response to North Korea. In one conversation, sources said, Trump stressed about five times that the U.S. stood 100% with Japan.

During his election campaign, Trump had slighted the alliance. But "having witnessed the North Korean threat, he now considers it important," one diplomatic source said.

That change in tune comes with higher expectations for assistance from Japan -- as shown by the request for the escort.

Turning down that request was not exactly an option. After all, U.S. warships are in the neighborhood to curb nuclear and missile testing by North Korea and to protect Japan and South Korea. If Tokyo rejected even a peacetime operation, it would tear the fabric of the bilateral alliance, and North Korea would likely turn more aggressive.

The Izumo's mission can be considered a trial run. Providing an escort only in the Pacific carries low odds of a direct confrontation with North Korea.

Nevertheless, Tokyo dispatched its biggest warship. This appears to be Japan's way of demonstrating the strength of the alliance with Washington, while sending a warning to Pyongyang.

Looking ahead, Tokyo should be prepared for escort missions in the Sea of Japan as well.

READY FOR THE WORST The new legislation enables the SDF to take on several other roles, too. The forces can now conduct armed rescue missions abroad for Japanese citizens, with the other country's permission. They can provide ammunition to the U.S. military when there is a serious threat to Japan's security.

Should an actual conflict erupt near Japan and threaten its survival, the SDF can even take up arms under the right to collective self-defense.

Depending on North Korea's actions, these scenarios could soon become very real. Japan must work closely with the U.S. and South Korea to prepare for any contingency.

Some in Japan worry that by providing more support to American forces, the country could become embroiled in a U.S.-led war. This may or may not be a valid concern. But this much is certain: Japan will be threatened by North Korean nuclear missiles unless Pyongyang can be stopped.

To achieve that, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea need to work together to ramp up diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea. Greater cooperation from China is also crucial.

Japan's government could also do a better job of public relations. The government did not officially announce that the Izumo had been dispatched. Though it has no legal obligation to do so immediately, greater transparency could help to ease anxiety and build support for SDF missions.

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