In 1983, towards the end of the Cold War, then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone ignited a storm of pacifist protest by pledging to make Japan (which had no flat-tops at the time) an “unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific.” Now, Japan just builds aircraft carriers, which it euphemistically labels “destroyers,” one after another.

Japan’s latest, the 814 foot long Izumo delivered last month, can accommodate helicopters as well as the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The vessel likely will be one of the Japanese naval units assigned to shield U.S. ships defending Japan against North Korean missiles, according to new Japan/U.S. defense cooperation guidelines announced Monday in New York. Japan’s military can also rush to aid third countries under attack as part of the new rules. The revamped defense guidelines are a high point of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington this week where he will meet with President Obama and address a Joint Session of Congress.

Japanese destroyer Izumo
Japanese destroyer Izumo

Abe is signalling that Japan is prepared to take a much bigger role in regional defense matters in the face of a more assertive China, a nuclear-capable North Korea and an over-stretched U.S. military.

The first change to the guidelines since 1997 follows a decision by Abe’s cabinet in July to reinterpret Article 9 of Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution. The step allows Japan to provide military aid to U.S. and other allied countries under attack. The cabinet move, which also permits Japan to exercise its right to “collective self-defense,” comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Japan and China over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea and Pyongyang’s increasing ability to strike Japan with nuclear-armed missiles.

Japan and the U.S. are likewise stepping up their global cooperation against missile, cyber and space-based attacks and joint maritime security operations under the new rules. In the most significant twist, Japanese forces can help shoot down enemy missiles headed for the U.S.

In return for such enhanced cooperation, Japan has secured Washington’s pledge of military support where Japan’s survival is under threat. Washington’s also agreed in principle to support Japan in potential clashes with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Reuters reported that a joint statement issued after the New York meeting by U.S. and Japanese officials “reconfirmed the alliance’s commitment to the security of Japan,” as well as Japan’s sovereignty over the islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China.

U.S. officials, at the same time, are downplaying suggestions that the revamped guidelines are aimed at China. Obama, aware of the deep financial and economic links between the U.S. and China, is wary of being drawn into a Sino-Japanese military incident on the high seas.

The other foot in Japan’s new defense stance will drop later this year when the Diet votes on legislation that will allow Japanese minesweepers to deploy in the Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf. Japanese forces also will be able to provide logistical support to the U.S. in other trouble spots far from Japan.

“These guidelines eliminate the geographic restrictions on U.S. and Japan cooperation so we’ll be able to do globally what we’ve been able to do in Japan and regionally as well,” said an unnamed defense official quoted on the U.S. Department of Defense website.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party aims to revise Japan’s constitution by late 2018 to lift other legal curbs on Japanese military operations.

The first U.S.-Japan defense guidelines were issued in 1978 and focused on the immediate defense of Japan.These were amended in 1997 to allow U.S. and Japanese military forces to cooperate regionally in areas surrounding Japan.

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