A former commander of the US armed forces in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Dennis Blair, has laid out in strikingly explicit terms what military support the US should expect from Japan in the case of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, in the Senkakus [which Taiwan claims as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台)] — or across the Taiwan Strait.
The plain-spoken admiral, who led the Pacific Command in Honolulu for three years until 2002, delivered the most forthright address on this issue in recent memory. Many US military and political leaders tip-toe around the question of Japanese military operations to avoid arousing the ire of the Chinese and North Korean regimes.
When US President Barack Obama was in Tokyo and Seoul last month, he assured Japanese and South Korean leaders that they could depend on the US as an ally. However, he refrained from specifics and reiterated a call for disputes to be settled through diplomatic negotiations.
Blair, addressing an audience in Washington, said he spoke as an outsider, not engaged in planning for military contingencies. Even so, the retired admiral, who later served as US director of national intelligence, is respected for his strategic insights.
The thrust of Blair’s remarks was to persuade Tokyo to shed its ban on collective defense. That policy precludes the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) from operations except for direct defense of Japan. The JSDF could not, for instance, defend a US base in Japan from a missile assault.
Overturning the ban so that Japanese forces could serve in combat alongside US forces in collective defense would make aggression less likely, Blair said.
“More robust cooperation will enhance deterrence,” he said.
The US would like to operate with the JSDF the way Washington operates with NATO forces, Blair said: “Ideally, Japanese aircraft, ships and missile batteries should be formed into combined task forces with US aircraft, ships and missile batteries to deal with common threats.”
Blair noted that US bases in Japan are within range of North Korean missiles.
If hostilities break out on the Korean Peninsula, “the United States would expect Japan to defend those bases,” he said.
In addition, US forces and supplies would move on an air and sea bridge from Japan to South Korea.
“Japan would be expected to defend that bridge against air attacks, submarine attacks and mining,” Blair said.
In the East China Sea, where China claims the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which Japan claims as part of Okinawa Prefecture, Blair recalled that “Japan has stated that it will remove any foreign forces that land on the Senkakus.”
Japan “expects the United States to support a recapture operation,” he said.
Japanese and US warships and aircraft should protect each other: Blair said it would be “more dangerous to the ships and aircraft of both countries if Japanese ships and aircraft are permitted only to protect themselves.”
The admiral drew a parallel between the Korean situation and a theoretical outbreak of hostilities across the Taiwan Strait, where Taiwan and China have been in a standoff for six decades. He said “American forces helping defend Taiwan against unprovoked aggression would be operating from US and Japanese bases in Japan.”
“Japan would be expected to defend those bases against hostile missile attacks, and the Japanese navy and air forces would be expected to help protect the Japanese end of that bridge against air, submarine and missile attacks,” Blair said. Another sea and air bridge would connect US bases in Japan to Taiwan, he said.
Besides appealing to Japan, Blair was critical of its security record over the past 30 years. “[The Japanese] have an almost unblemished record of missed opportunities to deploy self-defense forces to protect Japanese and wider international interests,” he said.
He listed alleged failures: In the mid-1980s Japan did not protect its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. In the First Gulf War, Japan sent minesweepers only after the war was over. In 1992, Japanese engineers and police in Cambodia abandoned their posts due to safety concerns. In 1999, Japan failed to contribute forces to peacekeeping in East Timor. In 2002, Japan set up a refueling station in the Indian Ocean, but far from the Afghan War.
“[The US should] make it clear to other countries in the region — South Korea and China, especially — and around the world, that we very much favor Japan playing a bigger role in addressing common security challenges... We should actively oppose and discredit groundless accusations that these Japanese actions constitute a threat to peace and security, much less that Japanese militarism is being reborn,” Blair said.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer in Hawaii.
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