The United States has long encouraged Japan to normalize its military and national defense posture, but now Japan's accelerating that process may inflame some of the longstanding tensions in the relationship.
According to Kyodo News, the United States has asked Japan to make sure that its neighbors understand the intention behind its latest attempt to adjust its national defense guidelines. Washington officials asked Japan to clarify an element of the defense guideline revisions that would allow Japan to strike enemy bases first, particularly to defend against ballistic missiles that pose an imminent threat.
Japan has often revised its defense guidelines, and each time the process makes news because it raises the fundamental question of how Japan can expand its military's range of action despite the constitutional renunciation of war fighting except in cases of self-defense. As the Japanese broaden their definition of self-defense, their neighbors raise objections — especially China and the Koreas, victims of Japan's imperialism in the first half of the 20th century.
Tensions over Japan's military normalization have risen recently for a number of reasons. Japan is making more moves to guard against China's rise, as are other nations, and China is suspicious of containment. North Korea has also spurred Japan to change. But at the moment, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party controls both houses of parliament after elections in July. It's popular at home, and it likely does not face elections again until 2016. So this is a rare chance for the country to move forward on policy changes that have normally met with a lot of resistance, ranging from economic policies to national defense. Japan's neighbors are naturally wary when they see the country relatively unified, experimenting with new policies and trying to show that it remains a major world power.
For the United States, Japan's latest burst of national energy brings some complications. The U.S. tried for decades to encourage Japan to contribute more to international security, but Japan offered mostly tokens of support, using its pacifist constitution as a means of dodging heavier commitments. Japan's attitude began to change in the 1990s, but especially over the past decade in the face of Chinese assertiveness and, to a lesser extent, Russian resurgence and North Korean provocations.
While the U.S. is glad to see Japan considering easing export restrictions on arms and playing a more active security role in the region, it also sees the potential for Japan's actions to raise frictions and escalate the security dilemma in the region. Essentially, Washington must worry about both China's challenge to the status quo and Japan's potential recalcitrance to China's rise. Washington wants its allies, both Japan and also Korea, to carry more of the burden of preserving order, but it does not want to lose control over the initiation of conflict, which is a risk when the allies start taking on more responsibility and improving their power projection capabilities as they've done, for instance, with aerial refueling. This concern for allies' ability to exercise restraint was apparent during North Korea's latest round of provocations in April, and it's a concern that will continue. With Japan, the situation is particularly sensitive because of the history of U.S.-Japanese frictions and Washington's desire for Japan to help but not to hinder the balance with China.