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Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

US, Japan re-commit to security alliance

It is well known that Abe favours Japan taking up a proactive role for its national security.

The revision of the US-Japan defence guidelines in April 2015, the first such amendment since 1997, became the flagship pronouncement during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the US last month. Review of the defence guidelines has sent out multiple signals simultaneously to East Asia, as Tokyo and Washington manifest the commitment of the US-Japan security alliance for the domestic audience within Japan and across the region. It is only too well known that Abe staunchly favours Japan taking up a more proactive role and responsibility for the nation's security.

Reforms in Japan's defence and foreign policy quarters under the Abe administration, including launching a national security strategy, creation of a national security council, revising national defence programme guidelines, and amending arms exports policies are portends of a far more hands-on approach that the Abe administration has embraced vis-à-vis Japan's overall security policy. For that matter, the resolution passed by the Japanese Cabinet in mid-2014, reinterpreting Japan's pacifist Constitution to allow the exercise of the right to collective self-defence was inferred to be a validating step in this direction. The Japanese Constitution prohibits the use of force to resolve conflicts except in cases of self-defence. However, this reinterpretation of the law will now allow use of force to defend Japan's allies [the US] under attack, thus making way for the Japanese forces to participate in defence operations around the globe.

The road on this issue, however, is not expected to be smooth, given that the post-war pacifist identity roots itself profoundly in the minds and psyche of the Japanese people. Moreover, it casts a reflection on the political scene in Japan — in that, the decision to reinterpret the Constitution has yet to get a clearance from the opposition, so as to effectively become legislation. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner in the government, the Komeito — a political outfit drawing most of its membership from a steadfast Buddhist politico-religious grouping — has expressed its reservations over this decision, more so, from the party's local units. Sensing this unwillingness, Abe has made a smart move by choosing to use the term "reinterpreting", rather than "revising" the Constitution. By doing so, he has avoided the need for a public referendum on the subject, since the word "revision" evokes a very strong sentiment in the public.

With the announcement of revising the defence guidelines, the shift in the US-Japan security equation has become perceptible and can well be referenced in context of the Obama administration's Asian rebalance. By aiding Japan's national security, the guidelines incline the alliance beyond Japan's immediate proximity to the broader Asia-Pacific region, and this purging of geographic restrictions shall redefine conceptual and operational extended deterrence and grey zones — the most perturbing of which is the East China Sea. It would not really be imprudent to argue that China has surreptitiously used the existing space of obscurity to its advantage in this sphere.

Amidst a sea of strategic reverberations in the region, there needs to be greater clarity and less room for ambiguity in the US-Japan commitment to East Asian security, particularly over the Senkaku Islands. During Obama's visit to Japan in the spring of 2014, the internal political debate including sections within the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party, began questioning the role of the US in the intensely contested Senkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China. While Obama reassured Washington's commitment to Japan's security in 2014, his tone was far more distinctive during Shinzo Abe's visit to the US last month. Obama refrained from outlining Washington's policy of neutrality on the dispute — decoded to being a taciturn rebuke to China. On the other hand, Abe drew a full crowd when he addressed a joint session of the US Congress — the first by a Japanese leader. The speech was designed to ensure that Abe does not come across as a historical revisionist and remains committed to strengthening the US-Japan alliance.

By adopting a seemingly pre-emptive posture on security, Shinzo Abe is consolidating his conservative support base at home, while simultaneously dovetailing with the Obama administration's Asian rebalance precept. Abe's political campaign and strategy hinge on accentuating the strength of Japan's post-war liberalism, with a vision to rejuvenate Japan. Concurrently, Abe has chosen to steer Japan towards a regional order that puts up a challenge to China and its prophecy of Asian regionalism, in the backdrop of Beijing's growing military offensive. Revision of the defence guidelines has provided a fresh connotation to the US-Japan alliance, which has long been considered the keystone of Washington's security role in Asia, and the greater Asia-Pacific region.

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