Page 1 of 2 US blind to barbs in Japan defense plan
By Peter Lee
The United States government, be it the White House, security strategists, the civilian leadership or the military brass, apparently has no qualms about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to affirm Japan's right to practice "collective self defense", or CSD.
In the face of public disapproval, resistance by an impotent political opposition, and gentle push-back from the minority partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Abe looks to implement CSD by asserting the government's right to repurpose the provisions of the pacifist constitution without formal revision or reinterpretation, but through a simple statement by the cabinet.
US supporters have been cheering him on in this awkward
process, like anxious soccer parents on the sidelines trying to will a clumsy toddler into nudging the ball into an empty net.
Whether this is a good idea, especially as it will permit Japan to restructure its security relationship with its future Asian allies without US mediation, history will, as they say, judge. But it looks like the United States is all in, on the basis that collective self-defense will enable Japanese military forces to assist the US.
I assume Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (term as ambassador and, indeed, total public career to date: three months) lacks the political or foreign policy throw-weight to freelance on key US-Japan issues, so this statement of support for collective self defense is probably an authoritative indicator of Obama administration preferences:
"Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked," US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy told the Asahi newspaper in an interview published Jan 23. 
Prime Minister Abe dutifully sang from the same hymnal before the Diet (parliament) on February 6:
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed Thursday that the country's continued self-imposed ban on exercising its right to collective self-defense will adversely affect the Japan-US alliance.
Referring to a case in which Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels fail to counterattack when US warships conducting joint activities come under attack, Abe said at a meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee, "The damage from the failure to the Japan-US alliance is immeasurable." 
I am presuming that in the original Japanese the case Abe described was a hypothetical: susbstitute "if" for "when" and "would be" for "is".
Questions of grammar and tense aside, this scenario doesn't fit the current pacifist constitution. The 1997 US-Japan Defense Guidelines explicitly and repeatedly mandate bilateral wartime operations, as can be seen from this useful table of responsibilities (Table 1). 
The Self-Defense Force is, as the name implies, supposed to defend Japan, including US installations in Japan, but not the US Seventh Fleet. The Seventh Fleet is designed to look after itself and is quite up to the task. The current structure of the US-Japan defense relationship is specifically and intensively structured to preclude the need for "collective self defense". The contingency that a US naval vessel will find itself getting mugged like a granny coming back from the store by a Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship and will desperately need the help of the SDF is, to put it charitably, remote under current circumstances.
According to Michael Cucek's Twitter feed, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Banri Kaeida, put this very question to Prime Minister Abe during Diet question time.
For a long time, the United States has been keen to enable certain joint US/Japanese operations under the current pacifist constitution, with the Japanese side moving beyond its traditional "only defend Japan" restrictions to provide benign, non-aggressive services such as minesweeping, reconnaissance, and ballistic missile defense, especially for new regional security missions only tangentially related to the defense of Japan. Scenarios for increased Japanese participation in joint activities, while still within the bounds of the current constitution, have been painstakingly parsed by American  and Japanese  strategists.
CSD would add another facet to this kind of operation. A joint flotilla could be sailing around outside Japanese waters, protecting sea lanes and whatnot, with the Japanese vessels sweeping mines, launching helicopters and surveillance planes, etc, in full pacifist constitution mode. Then, if things get ugly - for instance if a US vessel and equipment of an unnamed Asian power get into a scrape - then it's showtime! And the Japanese ships are free to blast away to protect the US ship, protect themselves, launch pre-emptive strikes - the list of kinetic operations possible under the label of collective self-defense is probably quite extensive.
With this sort of scenario in mind, perhaps US planners might believe that "collective self defense" kills two birds with one stone. First, it allows Japanese forces to be more easily and effectively integrated into new US regional missions beyond genuinely defensive ones; second, it keeps Japanese forces in a "defensive" posture, so the United States and countries around the region don't have to worry about the Japanese military going off on independent military adventures.
In other words, "collective self defense" gives the US the best of both worlds: Japan pulls its military weight in the alliance, but Japan's military ambitions remain under the thumb of the pacifist constitution.
And, of course, there is AirSeaBattle, the fantasy-war-with-the-PRC scenario. It is tempting to speculate that the outlandishness of AirSeaBattle - which assumes a sneak attack by the PRC, a massive war of attrition between the US and the PRC that never goes nuclear because, well, then we couldn't have AirSeaBattle and the Navy and Air Force deserve to have nice things - was an intentional feature designed to demonstrate that integration of US and Japanese military operations through collective self defense was the only feasible pathway to continued US military hegemony in the Western Pacific.
However, "the best laid plans of mice, men and Powerpoint Rangers gang aft agley" to paraphrase Robert Burns, and the Abe administration is already looking for ways to perform an active of strategic jiu jitsu and turn "collective self defense" into a potential instrument for independent Japanese action.
The Abe administration's architects of CSD have made it quite clear that they intend to apply collective self defense beyond the one nation with whom Japan currently has a formal alliance relationship, the US.
The deeper game in "collective self defense" was frankly discussed by its architect, courtesy Bloomberg:
Yousuke Isozaki, a special adviser to Abe on security policy, is spearheading the effort on collective self-defense and says the change will deepen security ties with the US and allow Japan  to reach out to other allies.
"We want to be able to discuss security with friendly countries other than the US," he said in a January 17 interview. "If we are bound hand and foot, we cannot talk. We cannot even say we will protect one another if something happens." 
In other words, "collective self defense" could be exercised in the aid of future allies, such as India, the Republic of the Philippines, and Vietnam, all of whom are already eager partners in heightened security cooperation with Japan targeting the People's Republic of China.
Theoretically, therefore, the Philippines for instance could get into a scrape with the PRC over the Scarborough Shoal with the understanding that it could call on Japan for assistance.
Furthermore, Japanese and US military strategists have already created a doctrinal template that can easily be transferred into a non-Japanese Asian security environment.
Aficionados of the causes of World War III might want to bone up on the concept of "gray zone crises" - conditions that are neither peacetime nor wartime. This is apparently the formulation that Japanese military strategists and their opposite numbers at the Pentagon have been working off since the first Senkaku crisis in 2010 to characterize the friction with the PRC over various ocean matters.
Sugio Takahashi of the National Institute for Defense Studies has characterized China's maritime activities, including but not limited to the Senkakus as a gray zone crisis.  He takes as his premise the assertion that the PRC is not pursuing interests to be negotiated diplomatically with other stakeholders, but is exploiting perceived power vacuums.
The framing, of course, is important here. If the PRC is pursuing specific interests that it perceives to be important and legitimate, that's a matter for engagement and negotiation. If, on the other hand, the PRC's priority is to push competitors out of the west Pacific, the proper riposte is defiance, a refusal to discuss or compromise, deterrence, and - if deterrence is challenged - the convincing ability to retaliate.
In past months, quite noticeably, the calls to confront China and eschew appeasement have become more strident. I leave it to observers to ponder whether this state of affairs reflects a fuller understanding of the PRC's actual nefarious ambitions, or whether militant declarations are meant to obfuscate relatively routine PRC moves to define and regulate its maritime affairs, and foreclose engagement options in favor of a conflict narrative that is much more favorable to the joint Japanese and US security strategy.
The prescription for the problem, according to Takahashi, is "dynamic deterrence", lots of flying and sailing around the sensitive area, intelligence gathering, and posturing by Japan to disabuse the PRC of the misconception that a power vacuum exists in Japan's sovereign territory - which is pretty much the scenario we see around the Senkakus. The key, however, is that "dynamic deterrence" is backed up by "static deterrence" - the fact that US forces are on tap if Japanese forces do get involved in a military confrontation.