News analysis

Doubts over US commitment to Japan's defence laid to rest at high-level Washington meeting

TOKYO - Any lingering doubts over the United States' commitment to Japan's defence were put to bed at the first Japan-US security consultative committee meeting since April 2015, held in Washington on Thursday (Aug 17).

US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met their Japanese counterparts Itsunori Onodera and Taro Kono for three hours for the so-called "two-plus-two meeting", during which they pledged closer defence cooperation to cope with the North Korean threat.

"The most significant outcome is an abstract one, rather than concrete," research director William Heidlage of Washington public policy consultancy BowerGroupAsia told The Straits Times.

"With Ministers Onodera and Kono only recently taking their posts, the 'two-plus-two' dialogue serves as the first moment that Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson were charged with maintaining and improving the status quo of relations with a treaty ally as their government experienced a significant restructuring, rather than the other way around."

Mr Onodera and Mr Kono have only been in their posts for two weeks, after being appointed in a Cabinet reshuffle on Aug 3.

 

"Mr Mattis and Mr Tillerson reaffirmed the US' commitment to defending Japan should North Korea launch a strike," Mr Heidlage said.

He noted that this was crucial in light of comments by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon earlier this week, who said that "there's no military solution here, they got us" if North Korea were to strike.

Mr Heidlage added that the Secretaries "plausibly advanced the conversation over how to expand our bilateral security relationship given strategic challenges in Asia and political realities here in Washington."

A joint statement released after the meeting reaffirmed that the US-Japan bilateral security treaty covers the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

It also confirmed the overall level of host nation support will be "maintained roughly" at level of Japan's fiscal year 2015, when Japan paid about 191 billion yen (S$2.4 billion), or about 86.4 per cent of the total cost.

US President Donald Trump had launched a scathing attack on the level of host nation support forked out by Japan on the campaign trail last year, saying that Tokyo should be paying more to benefit from the US security umbrella.

Nonetheless, Mr Onodera and Mr Kono on Thursday pledged that Japan will play an "expanded role" in the bilateral alliance, in areas such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as training and exercises.

Ms Shihoko Goto, Senior Associate for North-east Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Asia Programme in Washington, told The Straits Times: "What is clear is that not only is Japan more prepared to take on a proactive role in its defence, but also affirmation that the US would be willing - and indeed welcome - a more defence-focused Japan in the region."

But she added: "The challenge remains public opinion and public appetite for such a move."

The Nikkei Asian Review reported on Friday (Aug 18) that Japan is looking to increase its defence spending at a faster pace from fiscal 2019 than during the current five-year period.

Defence spending has been growing at an annual rate of 0.8 per cent on average in the current five-year period that will end in fiscal 2018 - which government officials have said is "unsustainable" in light of the more volatile security environment.

According to Japan's annual Defence White Paper released last week, Japanese defence spending accounted for 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product in fiscal 2015.

This proportion is lower than countries like the US (3.4 per cent), China (1.3 per cent), or South Korea (2.4 per cent), the report added.

Tokyo now intends to spend more on defence equipment to counter the growing threat fromPyongyang, with the possibility of also acquiring offensive weapons that will allow it to launch a pre-emptive strike at North Korea.

Mr Onodera has actively championed for such a move since his first term as Defence Minister from 2012 to 2014.

Given this, Mr Heidlage said: "It is not surprising that there are now conversations over whether Japan should consider explicitly stating it has the authority to pre-emptively strike targets abroad."

But he added his beliefs that Japan was "unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future", primarily due to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bigger priority of revising Article 9 of the pacifist Constitution.

"Spending political capital to allow for preventive strike abilities would undermine that objective."

Ms Goto, too, noted the "ever growing gap within Japan about what the defence community sees as vital for Japanese security, and public opinion".

This means Japan's politicians will continue to face increasing pressure - from Washington to bolster its active role in the alliance, and from its people who "continue to be wary of any significant change in Japan's military position", she added.