May 2, 2017 6:30 am JST

Japan-US alliance entering uncharted territory

Escort operation the first step toward greater cooperation during conflicts

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator

TOKYO -- The alliance between Japan and the U.S. has entered a new stage after the Japanese Self-Defense Forces kicked off their first peacetime escort of a U.S. warship. The countries now face a test to extending their partnership in times of conflict, not just for joint drills and policy coordination.

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke over the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe three times in April to discuss a response to North Korea. In one call, he stressed about five times that the U.S. stood 100% with Japan, sources say.

Trump had slighted the Japan-U.S. alliance on the campaign trail. But "having witnessed the North Korean threat, he now considers it important," a diplomatic source said. This also means his expectations for Japan are higher, as shown by the request for Japanese forces to escort an American supply ship.

Japan complied, as it should, by dispatching the Maritime SDF's Izumo helicopter carrier on Monday. After all, U.S. warships are in the area to curb nuclear and missile testing by North Korea and to protect Japan and South Korea against any provocations by Pyongyang.

If Japan were to turn down even peacetime escort operations, despite the protection it receives from the U.S. military, the bilateral alliance would cease to function and North Korea would turn more aggressive. In that sense, Japan made the right decision by passing new security legislation in 2015 that allows such operations.

This particular mission is really just a trial run. The Izumo is only guarding the U.S. ship in the Pacific Ocean, where it is unlikely to face military provocations from North Korea. But Tokyo likely sent its biggest warship anyway in order to demonstrate the strength of the alliance with Washington and to send a warning to Pyongyang.

Amid rising tensions, a number of American ships, including the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, have been dispatched to the Sea of Japan. Japan should be prepared for escort missions in those waters as well.

New legislation has enabled Japan's SDF to take on several other roles as well. They 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 faced with a serious threat to Japan's peace and safety. Should an armed 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 reality. Japan must work closely with the U.S. and South Korea to prepare for any outcome.

Some in Japan worry that by providing more support to American forces, the country could become embroiled in a U.S. war. Whether this is a valid concern or not, Japan will certainly be threatened by North Korean nuclear missiles unless Pyongyang can be stopped. To do this, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea must work together to ramp up diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea. They also need greater cooperation from China.

The Japanese government has not officially announced that the Izumo was dispatched. Though it has no legal obligation to do so immediately, it should make greater efforts to provide the public with information in order to alleviate concerns and gain support.

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