TOKYO: Japan and the United States have reinforced their security ties significantly since laws went into force five years ago to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense.
Speaking at parliament last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi touted progress in Japan-US defense cooperation since the national security laws took effect.
“Japan is no longer a country pressed by the United States to put ‘boots on the ground’ or ‘show the flag,'” Motegi said, referring to symbolic phrases used by Washington to urge Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to play a role in the war in Iraq.
The security laws allow the SDF to protect foreign military assets including vessels and aircraft. In May 2017, the SDF guarded a US warship for the first time deploying Maritime SDF destroyers.
The SDF engaged in missions to protect US military assets 16 times in 2018, 14 times in 2019 and 25 times in 2020. The increase is “evidence of US trust,” a Japanese Defense Ministry official said.
The 2020 cases were four missions to protect US vessels engaged in intelligence gathering and surveillance activities, including for possible ballistic missiles, and 21 missions to guard US aircraft during joint exercises.
But details of such SDF missions, including the timing and locations, have been withheld. “Information that can be made public is limited due to reasons on the US side,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told a press conference last week.
Motegi, Kishi and their US counterparts are expected to discuss a greater SDF role in the security of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea when they meet later this year.
Coast guard ships from China, which also claims the Senkakus, have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters off the islands. Washington says that the Senkakus are covered by Article 5 of the Japan-US security treaty, which stipulates US defense obligations to Japan.
But a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, “Japan needs to fight first, otherwise the United States won’t give protection.”
The scope of the SDF’s protection is expanding. In October, Japan and Australia agreed to consider having the SDF protect Australian military assets. In the future, the coverage may also include vessels European countries will send to East Asia to counter China’s maritime expansion.