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US-Japan defense guidelines could see drastic changes

TOKYO -- The U.S. and Japan are set to revise their bilateral defense guidelines for the first time in 17 years, driven by concerns over increasing tensions in Asia. The overhaul is expected to be the foundation for the U.S.-Japan alliance for a long time.     

     In January, the White House told the Japanese government of its official intent to further reinforce the alliance between the two countries, through multiple channels. It said this despite its stated displeasure over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine at the end of December.

     At a meeting on Feb. 7 to discuss ways to improve bilateral cooperation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry advised Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to work on improving the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. Kerry did not mention Abe's visit to Yasukuni.

     A source close to the White House says that although the U.S. government is still not pleased with the Yasukuni visit, there are more pressing matters that need attention, namely various tensions on the rise in Asia. As such, Washington cannot postpone any reinforcement of defense collaboration between the U.S. and Japan any longer.

     Working-level discussions between the U.S. and Japan began in January, with the plan to have an agreement completed before the year is out. 

The only option

The most immediate danger is North Korea. But the larger threat is the growth of China's military in the region. 

     In the Asia-Pacific region, where a multinational security framework does not exist, the Japan-U.S. alliance remains the vital military lifeline. Whether Washington and Tokyo can keep up a sustainable alliance is key to the region's future.

     The current guideline was last revised in 1997. In 1996, a missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait showed that the U.S. Navy could contain China's provocations only by dispatching two aircraft carriers to the region.

     Things have changed since then.

     A U.S. military source fears that, in the case of any military clash in the East China Sea, the U.S. Navy might not be able to immediately send a carrier due to possible interception by China's submarines and missiles. There is also the ever-growing danger that Pyongyang could be capable of launching a nuclear missile.

     What specifically will be on the agenda as the U.S. and Japan revise their guidelines? Both the U.S. Defense Department and the Japanese Defense Ministry have not given many details, but the general opinion is that there will be significant overhauls.

Serious exercises

According to several government sources on both sides of the Pacific, the two governments plan to identify problems in the current alliance framework by simulating a variety of crisis scenarios and conducting joint command-post exercises from this spring through autumn.

     Although specific agenda items in these exercises remain confidential, they will probably include such topics as how to deal with an emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula, military clashes pertaining to the Senkaku Islands and the situation in the East China Sea. An exercise simulating a terrorist or cyber attack might also be on the schedule.

     These exercises will involve both civilian and military defense officials of both countries, and diplomatic officials. Participants will not be informed in advance of the details about scenarios. The goal is to have participants discuss counter operations and address situations without any rehearsal.

     The exercises are expected to help identify any problems the countries have in their military capacities. The two governments will then discuss how to fill gaps in the alliance scheme and determine new responsibility allocations. The results of all this will be summarized in the new guidelines. With the U.S. cutting its overall defense budget, and the security situation growing more fragile, the role Japan should play is expected to expand.

     Currently, the biggest issue will be about allowing Japan to execute the right to collective self-defense. While Abe and his cabinet are prepared to embrace this right, the details of such permission will can vary greatly. It depends on how "collective self-defense" is defined and the scope this right can encompass, says a source knowledgeable about Japan's security issues.

     Another important issue is how to improve relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

     According to a U.S. government source, Seoul is concerned about Tokyo's potential right to collective self-defense. However, addressing a crisis on the Korean Peninsula will not be possible without South Korea's collaboration. Washington aims to detail Seoul about the revisions planned for the new guidelines as the revision process enters its final stage.

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