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Neighbors eye Tokyo's expanding Asia-Pacific role

WASHINGTON -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's defense policies are stirring mixed reactions around the Asia-Pacific neighborhood.

     The prime minister hopes to pass legislation that would allow Japan to play a bigger role in regional security. Tokyo and Washington have already agreed on new bilateral defense guidelines that broaden the scope of their partnership.

     U.S. President Barack Obama's administration made three moves on the national security front in early May, just after Abe visited Washington. The first was to nominate Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The second was to put in motion a plan to sell 17 Osprey tilt-rotor military transport aircraft to Japan. The third was to decide on a deployment of Ospreys at Yokota Air Base, a U.S. facility, starting in 2017.

     These developments can all be taken as signs that the U.S. is banking on increased cooperation with Japan.

     Dunford's promotion signals that Obama has decided to prioritize the Middle East and threats such as the Islamic State group. The general has significant field experience in the region, having led battles in Iraq on the ground and served as a commander in Afghanistan. A stronger U.S. commitment to the Middle East means that, in Asia, the military is likely to want more from its allies.

     The planned sale of Ospreys would beef up Japan's ability to defend itself against, say, China or North Korea. The aircraft, which can fly like a plane or a helicopter, is well-suited to special operations. 

     Concerns about the Osprey's safety -- long a source of controversy -- were raised again in Japan after a fatal accident in the U.S. state of Hawaii on May 17. But the U.S. has no intention of changing its plans for deploying the aircraft on Japanese shores, according to Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman.

Permission to intervene

The national security bills Abe is trying to push through the Diet, Japan's parliament, would allow the country's forces to exercise collective self-defense. In theory, they would give Tokyo the power to engage an enemy that is attacking the U.S.

     Passage of the bills would not necessarily expand joint military action beyond what Japan contributed in the Iraq War, according to James Schoff, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During that conflict, the government of Junichiro Koizumi sent Self-Defense Forces troops for largely humanitarian purposes.  

     In the Asia-Pacific region, too, the SDF would likely take on support roles, such as monitoring and patrolling the South China Sea -- at least for the time being.

     The U.S. Defense Department sought a record $534.3 billion budget for fiscal 2016. But the Pentagon seems to recognize that keeping the world in line with unrivaled military might is no longer realistic. The key now is figuring out how to use its budget efficiently.

     Working more closely with Japan's SDF could be one answer.

Depends on your perspective

While some Asia-Pacific countries welcome tighter U.S.-Japan defense ties, others are less than thrilled.

     Australia supports Tokyo's push to revise defense-related bills; Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has conveyed this to Abe. An unwritten rule of the U.S. military's international relationships is that Australia is in charge of the South Pacific, while the U.S. takes care of the Asia-Pacific region north of the equator. A larger role for Japan would provide extra defensive resources and open up new opportunities for working with other countries.

     The Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors of China will be watching these developments closely -- specifically, how they affect Beijing's efforts to hold sway over the South China Sea. For a country like the Philippines, whose defense budget is one-44th of China's, there is little it can do on its own to stop China from reclaiming land in disputed waters.

     China, naturally, would prefer to see Japan stay out of regional defense.

     "We hope Japan has learned from its historical lessons," Hua Chunying, deputy director of the Information Department at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in response to the Abe cabinet's decision to push the national security bills.

     From Beijing's perspective, control of the South China Sea is vital. It needs secure shipping lanes for importing the Middle Eastern oil that runs its industries. It has been working to guarantee access to key stops along the Indian Ocean-South China Sea route by helping with port upgrades.

     China is attempting to pressure Japan by bringing up its militarist past. Beijing hopes to get Seoul on its side as well. 

     The South Korean government faces a tricky balance. It supports closer Japan-U.S. defense cooperation but insists that any decision on collective self-defense that may impact the Korean Peninsula requires authorization from Seoul.

     Abe's defense bills "will heighten tension in Northeast Asia, but stronger Japanese support for the U.S. military in Japan will create a stronger deterrent against North Korea," South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo daily noted.

     If the legislative changes create more instability in the region, it would defeat their purpose. Abe has repeatedly said that his government prioritizes diplomacy and dialogue with Japan's neighbors. To calm those neighbors' nerves, he will need to convince them of his sincerity. 

This is the final part of a three-part series on Japan's defense policy.

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