Following a major victory for his party in Japan's legislative elections, most American pundits and the Obama administration would like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to concentrate on fixing the economy and stay away from raising Tokyo's military profile in Asia. But Abe seems bent on ignoring their advice and risks harming U.S. interests in the region.
Last Saturday, Abe expanded Japan's confrontation with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea by wading into the separate conflict in the South China Sea where Japan has no territorial claims.
Abe offered Philippine President Benigno Aquino ten top-of-the-line patrol boats, with generous financing, to protect Manila's sovereignty over the disputed "Mischief Reef," a flash point for confrontation with China which also claims the area.
A day earlier in Singapore, Abe pressed successfully for the U.S. to reaffirm it would come to Japan's defense if China threatened the contested Senkaku/Daiyu islands in the East China Sea, even though the United States recognizes neither Japanese nor Chinese sovereignty over the islands and seeks a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
In Singapore, Abe also called for a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the purpose of defusing tensions between the two countries. As an effective precondition to holding the summit, Abe insisted Beijing accept Tokyo's position that China has no valid legal claims to the Senkaku/Daiyu islands.
Abe's success in waving a big American "stick" at China came just as Japan's Defense Ministry issued an interim report calling for Tokyo to acquire new military capabilities and play a more assertive role in the region. Countering regional security threats would require amending Japan's constitution which currently limits the military to self-defense and bans overseas combat operations.
To understand the trajectory of Prime Minister Abe's expansive security policies, it is valuable to examine the views of one of his highly influential advisers - Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki - who laid out the rationale for significantly increasing Japan's regional military role in a piece published last Sunday by the Japan Times.
Okazaki argued that U.S. defense spending cuts could weaken the ability of American forces to deal with the security threat from China. To fill this "gap," Okazaki asserted that Japan must exercise its "right to collective self-defense" under the UN Charter by acting as the major U.S. enforcement arm in the region.
He specifically called for Japan's Navy to bolster the U.S Navy in its "patrol task force mission" of protecting tankers carrying oil and gas on the maritime "oil line" from the Persian Gulf to East Asia.
It would be especially helpful, Okazaki said, "if the [Japanese Navy] expanded patrol operations by its P-3C anti-submarine bombers from around their base in Djibouti, northeast Africa, to the entire oil line region. Doing that would integrate and cement U.S.-Japan defense cooperation."
In the conclusion to his article, Okazaki stressed that "Japan should not miss the opportunity" created by U.S. defense cuts "to exercise the right to collective self-defense" by asserting greater Japanese military power in East Asia, in a manner legitimized by the U.S.-Japan alliance.
There are a number of reasons why Okazaki's proposals and the recent actions of Prime Minister Abe would be harmful to U.S. interests:
• By acting as a military enforcer for the United States in East Asia - rather than providing mainly logistical support for U.S. forces as it does now - Tokyo will increasingly put a Japanese "face" on American security policy in the region, stirring widespread resentment from the many countries occupied by Japan during and prior to World War II
• Using the U.S.-Japan alliance as a means for Japan to achieve a more prominent regional security role will incite major opposition in South Korea, weakening Washington's alliance with Seoul
• Tokyo's inflexibility and unwillingness to seek a legal or diplomatic settlement of its dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku/Daiyu islands, acquired by conquest in the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, could draw the United States into a dangerous and unwanted military confrontation with China
• On top of Abe's previous inflammatory statements - including his expressed interest in revising Japan's constitution to facilitate expanded military activities, his desire to visit the Yasukuni shrine to honor Japan's war dead, and his public questioning of whether Japan committed "aggression" in the second World War - Okazaki's proposals, along with the interim recommendations of Japan's Defense Ministry, would exacerbate the "history" issue and undercut the U.S.-Japan alliance
Yet Okazaki's proposal for Japan to play a more prominent role in the "patrol task force mission" of protecting tankers carrying petroleum from the Middle East to East Asia does suggest a positive avenue for U.S. policy. The United States should welcome greater support not only from Japan but from other countries with powerful navies that depend on the lifeline of Middle East oil for their energy security - India, South Korea and China.
A true multilateral effort to protect the "oil line," spearheaded by the U.S. Navy, could have a major impact in reducing regional tensions and focus the participating countries on mutually beneficial security cooperation, rather than deepening their all too prevalent nationalistic animosities toward each other.
Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former White House and State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).