TOKYO -- Consciously or not, Japan has entered a new foreign-policy era forced on it by a shifting global landscape.
President Barack Obama has declared that "America is not the world's policeman" and carried out U.S. foreign policy accordingly. American military leaders have offered since last fall a number of proposals for deploying warships and fighter jets to check Chinese island-building activity in the South China Sea, but the White House has categorically rejected them, a Defense Department strategist said.
Washington is not merely shying away from confrontation with China. The U.S. sees encouraging Asian countries to contribute to the region's security -- rather than acting on its own -- as the top priority.
This view is not limited to the Obama administration. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he would withdraw American forces from Japan and South Korea if Tokyo and Seoul do not foot much more of the bill for their presence.
While Trump's comments are nonsense, they partly reflect the opinions of an American public tired of war, a Republican Party source said.
A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, America now has neither the wherewithal nor any reason to continue policing the world alone. The days when Japan could rely entirely on the U.S. to keep the peace are over. And if this is the case, Tokyo must take on a portion of Washington's role in maintaining order.
U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has said that the country will allocate 2% of gross domestic product to defense -- roughly double the share spent by Japan. Even London, Washington's closest friend, sees no choice but to do more for itself to maintain a strong alliance. Given this global trend, the Japanese decision to expand security powers makes sense.
Some criticize the new security laws as unconstitutional. But Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense only when its survival is threatened. This is likely within the realm of what the charter permits.
But much work remains before the laws can be used to broaden the range of activities by the Self-Defense Forces. For one, standards regarding when and where the SDF can be dispatched are exceedingly vague -- a fact unlikely to aid public acceptance of the new legislation.
Under what circumstances can the SDF be deployed to the Korean Peninsula or the East or South China seas? The government should draw up standards to supplement the abstract legal framework and explain them as clearly as possible to the people.
The SDF must also be carefully prepared to take on more dangerous duties. "The most important thing is to clearly define new rules of engagement and train [personnel] so they can act quickly," said a top official who was involved in supporting the reconstruction of Iraq.
And politicians must be keenly aware that they bear a heavier responsibility than ever. The lower the legal hurdles to dispatching the SDF, the sharper their judgment and sense of responsibility need to be.
"I couldn't sleep at night," said a former cabinet member who sent SDF personnel abroad, recalling the days when tensions heightened there. This is nothing compared with the pressure politicians would face in deployments near theaters of war.
The new laws will not function properly without leaders whose decisions the public feels it can trust. This goes for not only the prime minister, who serves as commander in chief, but also Diet members, who have the power to approve SDF deployments.
Politicians and bureaucrats have argued that Japan's diplomatic clout is weaker without a military card to play. Diplomacy will become even more important to ensure that the country can continue to avoid resorting to force. Japan must not forget its responsibility to safeguard Asian stability.