Even as Japan remains divided over proposed changes in the role it should play in regional security issues, senior U.S. and Japanese military officers say they hope the Japanese navy may soon be freed up to play a more active role in the Pacific and beyond, plying some of the world’s most hotly contested waters.
Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said he expects revisions headed for approval in Japan’s parliament will make it easier for the Japanese and U.S. navies to cooperate more smoothly in the Indian and Pacific oceans and in “multilateral exercises across the region.”
The proposed guidelines are important to Washington because Japan is the United States’ closest and most stalwart ally in Asia. They come as Japan is already shifting its defense priorities from northern reaches near Russia to the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands.
Japan is setting up an amphibious unit similar to the U.S. Marines to respond quickly to any invasion of those islands and is also planning to upgrade its air defenses with F-35 stealth fighters and Global Hawk drones.
One of the key strategic goals for Tokyo and Washington is to allow Japan to participate in what is known as collective self-defense, meaning that it would be able to come to the aid of an ally under attack even if that did not entail a direct attack on Japan or its own military.
“They have the capacity and the capability in international waters and international airspace anywhere on the globe. That’s the important point,” Thomas told reporters Tuesday. “The decisions that are pending with regard to collective self-defense will clearly allow the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces to interact with, frankly, a lot of international partners, not just the US Seventh Fleet, in a more flexible fashion.”