Between July 12-19, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) chief of Joint Staff, visited the United States at the official invitation of his U.S. counterpart, General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his stay, he visited U.S. Strategic Command (STRACTOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), Special Operation Command (SOCOM), and Camp Lejune prior his arrival in Washington DC.
Most notable, however, was Kawano’s D.C. itinerary. In addition to his meeting with General Dempsey and a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major think tank in Washington, he also had a series of high-level meetings with other high-ranking officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. In fact, Kawano became the first Japanese chief of Joint Staff to meet with the vice president of the United States.
Kawano’s red-carpet treatment is a reflection of Washington’s rising expectations of Japan. As the tension between the United States and China continues over Beijing’s behavior in South China Sea, the United States is increasingly turning to its allies in the Asia-Pacific to share the responsibility of preserving the existing international norms—such as freedom of navigation—in the region. In this context, the recent acceleration of the changes in Japanese security policy is perceived as an encouraging case of an American ally trying to step up to take greater responsibility as a steward of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
In particular, Washington has been very encouraged by the new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation (announced in April 2015 to precede Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington) and the security legislation proposed by the Japanese government that is currently under consideration in the Diet. The latter is particularly important, as it provides the necessary legal authorization for Japan to take an expanded and more robust role in the U.S.-Japan alliance, which Tokyo and Washington agreed to in the new Guidelines. The legislation ensures that Japan will be able to participate in a wider range of activities for regional and global security.
Meanwhile, opposition against the security legislation continues to brew in Tokyo. Although the bill passed the Lower House on July 16, the public remains suspicious of the legislation. Opinion polls taken jointly by Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network (FNN) between July 18-19 revealed that the public is divided over whether the proposed security legislation is something that Japan needs in the first place, and that over 60 percent are against the bill’s passage during the current Diet session.
A warm reception for Kawano speaks to Washington’s expectation for Japan to begin sharing the burdens and risks that come with efforts to maintain the existing international order. However, the way that the debate over the security legislation has been going so far suggests that, even if the bill eventually passes and is enacted, the country will likely remain sharply divided on how much greater of a role it will allow the JSDF to play in such efforts. Given all this, whether or not Japan can meet Washington’s heightened expectations remains an open question.
This article originally appeared in The Diplomat, on July 24, 2015.