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Friday, July 20, 2012

Major defense shift draws mixed reaction

U.S. wants SDF to be equal ally; Seoul, Beijing are very wary


A report calling for the government to lift the self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense has been met with approval from the United States but is receiving a tepid response in South Korea and alarm in China.

A panel of government-appointed experts on July 6 called for Japan to resolve the issue by 2025, along with a number of other matters deemed to be of national importance.

The government has interpreted the war-renouncing Constitution as prohibiting it from engaging in collective defense, or helping to defend an ally that has come under armed attack.

The proposed revision to the interpretation — a sensitive issue with neighboring countries given Japan's wartime past — is in line with the long-held position of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the son of a Ground Self-Defense Force member.

Washington has looked at the development in a positive light, as it has seen the ban as hindering a deeper Japan-U.S. security alliance and better cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military.

The proposal by a subpanel of the National Strategy Council called the "Frontier Subcommittee" comes at a time when Washington faces the need to cut its defense spending amid growing fiscal debt while feeling an urgent need to respond to China's rapid military buildup.

Cooperation between Japan and South Korea is particularly indispensable for the United States as it is counting on its allies to play greater security roles, according to a source close to Japanese-U.S. ties.

Toshi Yoshihara, an expert on Asian security at the U.S. Naval War College, pointed out that the Japan-U.S. alliance would be in serious jeopardy if Japan was unable to assist the United States in the event North Korea launched missiles at the United States, or a military clash occurred between China and the United States.

China, meanwhile, has been alarmed by the report, with its media calling it an ominous sign of Japanese militarism and a move obviously with China in mind.

It also comes as Beijing perceives a hardening stance by Tokyo, with the Noda administration picking Satoshi Morimoto, an advocate of containment policy against China, as its latest defense minister and announcing plans to nationalize the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

"Allowing Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense means it will be a country that can participate in international armed operations run by the United States and that can engage in war," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies.

The move will be negative for Sino-Japanese ties, he said, because it can be seen as a countermeasure against China.

Criticism has also mounted in South Korea, which remains deeply suspicious of Tokyo due to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean media reported that Japan had made a fresh claim that it has the right to attack another country.

In a meeting Monday in Seoul, Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan conveyed to Democratic Party of Japan policy chief Seiji Maehara his concern about a deterioration of sentiment in South Korea toward Japan following the panel's recommendation.

Maehara told Kim that the recommendation by a panel composed mostly of university professors and think-tank researchers was "not a government decision," he explained to reporters after the meeting.

Tokyo has held the position that while Japan has the right to collective self-defense, it cannot exercise the right because doing so would exceed the minimum force necessary to defend itself that is permitted under the Constitution.

Article 9 of the Constitution stipulates that the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes, and that land, sea and air forces, or any other military means, will never be maintained to accomplish that aim.

Although the branches of the SDF effectively play the role of army, navy and air force, they are not so named to avoid any notion of an offensive military posture.

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