Dennis Blair is Chairman of the Board of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA, which is particularly active in Washington as a think tank focused on US-Japan relations. Prior to retiring from the Navy in 2002, Admiral Blair served as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), overseeing all US forces in the largest of the country’s combatant commands. From 2003-2006, Admiral Blair served as president of the Institute for Defense Analysis, a major Pentagon think tank, and from January 2009 to May 2010, he was Director of National Intelligence, overseeing the entirety of the US intelligence community. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Admiral Blair also attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has issued a new interpretation of the Constitution, allowing for the exercise of collective self-defense. What benefit do you envision for the US-Japan alliance?
BLAIR: It would update the potential for military cooperation. The long-standing interpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution was fine when the primary threat to Japan, during the Cold War, was an attack by the Soviet Union on northern Hokkaido, or an attempt to put a blockade around Japan and cut the country off from the United States, using Soviet submarines and missiles. That was during the Cold War.
Today, we face a new world, involving complex threats and contingencies that require a range of military capabilities to both threaten the use of force as a self-defense deterrent, and the potential actual use of force in response to aggression.
Japan’s postwar traditional stance of individual self-defense is very narrow when arrayed against the kind of threats Japan may face today. In today’s world, the traditional interpretation of the Constitution simply hamstrings the ability of Japan to join with the United States in providing the military dimension of responses to the kinds of threats and challenges we face today.
DISPATCH JAPAN: When I heard you speak on this topic before, you referenced potential conflicts in the region with North Korea, or with China over Taiwan or the disputed Senkaku Islands. I had the impression you were mainly concerned about Japan protecting US military bases in Japan from missile attacks, and that missile defense would require much more integrated coordination between US and Japanese forces than has traditionally been allowed.
BLAIR: The two contingencies that we are preparing for, and are practicing for and deterring, would involve the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. In both of those contingencies, Japan would have a very important supporting role to play. It would not simply involve defending the US bases in Japan, from which US forces would embark.
It would involve a wide range of logistical support.
With the modern-day coverage of conflict, the public has gotten a glimpse of the enormous tasks involved in mobilizing and effectively deploying major US military forces into a combat area.
The United States would be looking to Japan for that wide range of support.
In addition, the sea and air space of Japan butts right up against Korea, to Japan’s north, and up against Taiwan, to the south.
Japan would presumably want for its own purposes to be able to assert its sovereignty, and to ensure that the combatants would not approach Japan. The United States would want the same, as supplies, equipment, and personnel moved through our bases in Japan into the combat areas.
The issue is a lot more complicated than missile defense of US bases in Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: In the case of a Korea contingency, isn’t Japan already allowed to provide logistical support under the existing terms of the Constitution, and on terms negotiated as part of the US-Japan Security Treaty?
BLAIR: Yes. Provision of logistical support is allowed. But the defense and security of the entire lines of communication is something that should be clear to a potential adversary, so as to enhance deterrence.
This would require Japan’s Self Defense Forces operating to maintain Japan’s sovereignty, and to help maintain the integrity of US logistics flows in a combat situation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the problem at this point, with respect to Japan’s SDF performing these roles? Are those missions banned, or is there a lack of clarity that inhibits effective planning and integration between US and Japanese forces?
BLAIR: You will understand that I can’t talk about classified aspects of the planning we do with our Japanese allies. But I don’t think the Japanese public recognizes the scale of the task that would be involved. Open discussion of this, if allowed by Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense, would prepare public opinion for what would actually happen, and it would enhance deterrence against a potential adversary.
DISPATCH JAPAN: In the past, SDF involvement in UN peacekeeping, or in provision of logistical support for US forces after 9-11, provoked a lot of debate in Japan.
BLAIR: That’s right, and that is a problem for military planners. It is often unclear what will be available from Japan, and when, in a crisis.
Because of the constraints imposed by the existing interpretation of Article 9, each past international incident in which a contribution from Japan was, or would have been, very helpful resulted in protracted domestic debate, and even retraction of force deployments ordered by the government.
This has happened even in cases that seemed relatively benign and straight-forward, such as the international force that went into East Timor, or the dispatch of Japanese naval forces to help out in the Indian Ocean after 9-11.
These cases involved very little danger to Japan or Japanese forces, and seemed to be justified by international circumstances, especially in light of what the rest of the world was doing at the time. But these past cases were big deals in Japan, and in some cases, as I said, the SDF forces were withdrawn.
In that context, imagine what would happen if there were a big conflict on the Korean Peninsula, and the SDF were involved in the envisioned logistical support missions. Unless all of this had been pretty clearly worked out and explained to people under the terms allowed by Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense, it might be very controversial. The lack of clarity would affect the overall war-fighting effort.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Prime Minister Abe’s government has put forward a number of scenarios in which Japan exercising the collective self-defense right would be particularly important. For example, defense of American naval vessels around Japan. Would the US Navy really need Japan’s help to protect particular US vessels, or was this just a simplistic way of explaining a more complicated issue?
BLAIR: The US Navy and the Maritime Self-Defense Force of Japan have enough interoperable equipment, and enough experience working together, that they would be able to quickly form combined task forces under a unified command; for example, an American admiral in charge, and a Japanese admiral as the deputy.
There would be Aegis destroyers from both countries as part of this. There would be an American aircraft carrier group, and Japan helicopter carriers, and the forces would be integrated.
Should a threat to that joint task force develop, such as a North Korean submarine, or a North Korean plane or missile, the commanders should be able to give orders to shoot that plane or missile down, or to attack that submarine. The orders would go to the combined units that are in the best position to implement, without having to go through a separate calculation as to whether the threat is specifically posed to a Japanese or American vessel. If the impending North Korean submarine threat is specifically against an American aircraft carrier, does that mean a Japanese naval vessel in a position to counter that threat could not act? Would the Japanese commanders on the scene have to decide whether the threat is specifically against an American vessel, which might forbid a Japanese response, thereby requiring an American-only response? Would the necessary response fall upon an American anti-submarine vessel, even though that vessel might not operationally be best -positioned to do so?
These are the type of operational issues that arise in a conflict.
The strategic and tactical imperative is to use the very interoperable, combined capabilities of American and Japanese ships and aircraft in an effective way to accomplish the overall mission.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you anticipate at some point that Korean forces will work with Japanese and American forces in a tripartite fashion?
BLAIR: I certainly hope so. Korea and Japan both have very capable forces. In the most dangerous scenario – a conflict with North Korea – the vessels and aircraft of those two countries should be cooperating. They do not have the operational experience together that the US has separately with Japan and Korea.
From a military-operational point of view, it is relatively straight-forward to coordinate operations, if not to integrate them. Japan and Korea ought to be coordinating their operations. This could include mine sweeping, and patrolling areas against North Korean submarines. This ought to be seamlessly worked out between Tokyo and Seoul, and the US.
For example, if a North Korea jet takes off, and swings back to the east, it might be turning to make an attack on South Korea, or it might be turning with the intent of attacking a Japanese base, or an American base in Japan. Information on that North Korean jet ought to be shared by the three countries, so that the best positioned of the three could intercept the jet.
That kind of practical exchange of information, and effective use of force by the three countries should become commonplace.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How far away are we from that kind of trilateral relationship?
BLAIR: I’d say that resolution of the ‘comfort women’ issue would go a long way toward getting us there.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you envision roles and missions for the SDF in the South China Sea?
BLAIR: I can foresee a range of activities. Certainly I would like to see the Maritime Self-Defense Force involved in protection of commercial ships against piracy. Disaster relief is another important area. In fact, on a very informal basis, Japanese naval vessels provided assistance against possible terrorist and pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait a decade ago when I was CINCPAC. At the time, we were concerned that there might be terrorist attacks on shipping in that area.
I think Japan should be a responsible member of the region, through which a huge amount of seaborne commerce flows to and from Japan.
As for territorial disputes in the South China Sea, I would not expect Japan to become involved militarily.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Concerning threat perceptions in the region, do the US and Japan share the same relative concerns about China and North Korea, or is there a divergence?
BLAIR: There is a broad convergence, but there are nuances to our respective views. From the US point of view, North Korea is a threat to an ally, and a nuclear threat to two allies. We have long-extended to Japan our nuclear deterrent. A conflict with North Korea would be enormously disruptive, and could cause serious harm to Japan. Still, there is the additional issue of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea over the years.
On China, the overall appreciation is the same: How will China use its ever-increasing political, economic, and military power? There are some divergences. Japan-China relations have a hard edge because of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and the war itself. On the other side, China expresses concern that the US is trying to “contain” China, while the US has concerns that China is trying to displace the US from its position in the region and beyond.
Beyond these nuances, however, there is a shared concern on the part of the US and Japan about how to manage China’s growing power.
DISPATCH JAPAN: ‘Revisionists’ in Japan, including Prime Minister Abe, have often expressed frustration with a Constitution that was imposed on Japan in the wake of defeat in World War II. Do you have any concern that underlying the push for collective self-defense is a desire for greater autonomy that might not be consistent with the alliance?
BLAIR: A desire for greater autonomy, and a more balanced relationship with the United States, is very much a part of the prime minister’s thinking. And this goes far beyond the prime minister, though he is currently the most articulate exponent of this view.
In my dealings with Japan over the years, I have felt that Japan should be a more equal partner. The bargain implicit in the Yoshida Doctrine – Japan relying so heavily on the United States for its defense – is no longer appropriate for a strong, mature, experienced country like Japan. It is normal for Japan to want to be a more equal partner. The type of relationship we have had with Japan was by far the exception, not the rule, in our dealings with other sovereign states.
I don’t anticipate a Japan “that can say no.” I anticipate a Japan that says “let’s talk about common issues, and figure out our common interests and coordinated actions to protect them.” I believe this is not only inevitable, but will be a good thing for the United States.