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Japan's new security role

One important issue on the agenda for Japanese PM Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington will be increased US-Japanese military cooperation. Japan and the USA are agreed - but there are some reservations in Asia.

"It's a really big deal," the Washington Post recently quoted an unnamed top official from the US Department of Defense as saying. Ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's three-day trip to the USA, American media are increasingly discussing details of the new defense rules being negotiated between Washington and Tokyo.

And what is becoming ever clearer is that these rules are of enormous importance to the Americans and for their strategic interests in Asia. According to media reports, the new defense agreements would allow Japan to expand its geographic radius of action for military operations. At the same time, it would be given new powers to lend military support to American armed forces even when they are not involved in operations providing direct protection to Japan. But both chambers of the Japanese parliament will first have to agree to make the necessary amendments to the country's pacificist post-war constitution.

US pressure

For some time, the USA has been "urging Japan to assume a larger security role - not only for its own defense but for regional and global security issues," Bruce Klingner from the Washington Heritage Foundation told the Deutsche Welle.

Particularly with the rising threat from North Korea and China, the US has been looking for Japan to become more active, he said. "This means to implement things like collective self-defense as well as devote more than only one percent its budget towards its security," Klingner said.

Japan's vital role

Another reason why the USA wants the Japanese to become more engaged in their own and regional security is because it itself is "overstretched": "It's engaged in the Middle East and in Europe and with Russia as well," says Shihoko Goto, a Japan expert from the Washington Wilson Center thinktank.

Japan's involvement is considered vital by Washington: "For the United States, [this] alliance is really key to ensuring its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region." The Japanese, for their part, see the US-Japan alliance as being "at the heart of the entire Japanese defense mechanism," according to Goto.

Abe recently confirmed this once more in an interview with the Washington Post. He underlined the fact that President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" was an important contribution to peace and stability in the region and "indispensable for the deterrent effect" of the American-Japanese alliance.

North Korea's atomic bomb

North Korean rocket being launched REUTERS/KCNA

North Korea's nuclear weapons program is of great concern to Japan

Abe would above all like to "deter" two Asian countries: Japan feels itself increasingly threatened by China and North Korea. North Korea is working on an atomic bomb, and, according to this Thursday's (23 April 2015) Wall Street Journal, this work could be already much more advanced than has previously been assumed. The newspaper quotes Chinese nuclear experts who are of the opinion that North Korea could already produce enough nuclear warheads to pose a "real threat to the USA and its allies."

And for the past 27 years, China has almost always annually raised its defense budget by more than 10 percent, according to Abe. Its military spending was now 3.6 times as high as that of Japan, he said. Shihoko Goto confirms that "the rising militarism in China" represents a threat for Japan.

America's weakness - China's strength

China's assertive behavior in the territorial conflicts in the China Sea, for example, is seen as a provocation not only by Japan, but also by neighbors such as South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. The more that the USA is perceived by its allies to be losing its influence, the more weight this carries.

Japan Inseln Minamikojima, Kitakojima & Uotsuri

The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands remain a bone of contention between Tokyo and Beijing

The dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea has also played a role in negotiations over the new defense rules. Even though President Obama has indicated that the USA does not want to be drawn into the Japanese-Chinese conflict over the islands, he did - at the explicit request of Japan - make it clear that the defense of the islands was one of the matters covered by those newly negotiated rules. Reportedly, the islands are to be expressly named in the text.

Neighborly fears

This has brought China into the arena. Their demand to the Americans is unambiguous: the USA should kindly keep its nose out of the conflict.

"[China] really wants to be the top dog in the region," Shihoko Goto says of Beijing's stance. It sees the world in fairly simple terms, she explains: "America is the big power in the West; China is the big power in the East." From China's perspective, Japan, especially with its now enhanced defense cooperation with the USA, has stopped it from fully exploiting this role as the most powerful country in Asia.

The Japanese plans have also provoked worries of a different kind in South Korea, according to Goto. "There is a lot of concern in Korea that Japan is overreaching; that it is going back into its historical past of militarism," she says. In Seoul, people are scared of a "resurgence, of history repeating itself." The region cannot forget Japan's brutal expansion during the Second World War. Many observers feel that Japan has not yet properly confronted its history. The fact that Abe recently tried to relativize Japan's responsibility for its war crimes has served only to increase the mistrust between the neighboring countries.

No Japanese militarism

But Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation says these concerns are unjustified. "There has been either a misperception or deliberate mischaracterizations of what some of these revisions to Japan's security posture entail," he says. "Some are depicting them as a resurgence of 1930s militarism; that it reflects Tokyo wanting to have Japanese boots on the ground again on the Korean Peninsula, all of which are incorrect."

But Klingner also says that Japan and the USA should communicate more about what these changes mean, and what they don't. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama will have ample opportunity to do this at their meeting in Washington.

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