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Indo-Pacific: Japan's intense foreign military cooperation

Is the Japanese military really transforming from a regional player to an "export-oriented" global army?

Japan is increasingly expanding its military partnership network by establishing regular consultation mechanisms, signing bilateral military agreements, and participating in multilateral joint military exercises to pave the way for realizing its strategic ambitions.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces, for example, participated in a joint space exercise organized by NATO for the first time, representing the continued strengthening of Japan's military cooperation with NATO.


Intensify efforts to establish bilateral mechanisms

Japan's main tool to strengthen foreign military cooperation is to establish bilateral mechanisms. Currently, Japan has established a "2+2" negotiation mechanism with 11 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This mechanism allows both sides to regularly exchange views on important issues of military cooperation.

With the United States, thirteen countries and organizations including Canada, South Korea, Australia, Italy and NATO have signed the "Intelligence Protection Agreement", establishing a communication and sharing mechanism for the exchange of military intelligence.

The "Agreement for the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technologies" has been signed (or will be signed soon) with 15 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh to open channels for Japan's arms and equipment exports and for the transfer of military technology.

Tokyo also signed a "Reciprocal Materials and Labor Services Agreement" with 7 countries including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, India and Germany.

The "Mutual Access Agreement" to provide institutional guarantee for the material and logistical work of the Japan Self-Defense Force when it travels to countries to participate in joint exercises.

Finally, Japan has signed (or will soon sign) a "Mutual Access Agreement" with Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the Philippines to facilitate joint military operations and logistics cooperation between the two countries.

Among them, the "Mutual Access Agreement", as a key component of Japan's foreign military cooperation, replaces legal procedures with agreed terms, establishes the status and treatment of military personnel of both sides during mutual visits, and simplifies jurisdiction involved when the personnel concerned enter the other country (issues such as entry and exit, carrying of weapons, personnel jurisdiction and right to self-defense, etc. are regulated, while covering the use of territory, compensation for environmental pollution and employment and labor issues relating to the garrison).

Some commentators believe that the agreement provides for the medium- and long-term future deployment of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces abroad.

Military cooperation shows new trends

Japan's foreign military cooperation is being carried out in a relatively clear construction path, which usually includes the following four stages.

First, “ice-breaking” occurs through talks, common forms of which include summit talks or “2+2” talks involving diplomatic and defense officials, with the aim of reaching consensus and cooperative intentions in certain areas of safety.

Second, through "binding" mechanisms, based on the achievement of initial trust with partner countries, contracting states receive preferential treatment to promote the establishment of bilateral restraint mechanisms in specific areas in order to facilitate the sharing of intelligence, combat materials integration, arms and equipment exports, military personnel exchanges, logistics support, etc.

Third, through “enhanced” joint exercises. Once the relevant mechanisms are established, Japan or partner countries organize joint exercises and training to deepen military ties between the two sides and stimulate new needs for cooperation.

Finally, there is “fusion” through interaction, that is, the creation of alliances or quasi-alliance relationships to satisfy multiple levels of needs. For example, Japan and Australia have completed primary interactions through military exchanges, establishment of mechanisms and joint military exercises, and are moving towards in-depth cooperation in areas such as technical cooperation and operational coordination.

Furthermore, Japan's foreign military cooperation also shows three new trends.

One is to be more proactive in providing foreign military support. In 2023, the Japanese government established the "Government Security Capability Enhancement Support" (OSA) military assistance system, claiming to provide defense equipment to "like-minded countries". It has currently supplied surveillance and communication equipment to the Philippines, Fiji, etc.

The second is to define bilateral cooperation more broadly. In addition to promoting bilateral cooperation with a single country, Japan also seeks to establish normalized military cooperative relations with military alliances such as NATO.

The third, finally, is to be more "active" in participating in multilateral mechanisms. In recent years, Japan has played an important role in the “Quadruple Mechanism” of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

Recently, Japan also said it is considering joining the "AUKUS" trilateral security partnership framework between the United States, Britain and Australia.

Meet the strategic intentions of the United States

Japan promotes the establishment of military cooperative relations with multiple countries and organizations at multiple levels and dimensions in order to achieve the following military intentions.

First, by strengthening military cooperation with the United States and its traditional allies, “connections” can be accumulated to overcome the restrictions of the pacifist constitution in the future. These military interactions are in line with the United States' current strategic needs to reshape and rebuild its military alliance system, and it is easy to obtain support from the United States. With the increase of partner countries, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will participate in more military activities and joint exercises, which will increase the acceptance of Japan's military "normalization" by stakeholders and reduce domestic opposition to the future revision of the pacifist constitution by the Japanese government.

Secondly, Japan is eager to sign the Agreement on Reciprocal Supply of Materials and Manpower Services and the Agreement on Reciprocal Access with other countries, aiming to circumvent domestic legal restrictions and promote self-defense forces a “global” army.

In essence, the Japanese military is transforming from a regionally based player into an “export-oriented” global military.

As more and more bilateral mechanisms are established, Japan will be able to expand its military deployment to more countries and regions, laying the foundation for a future stable military presence abroad.

Signing each mutual access agreement means that Japan gets a more streamlined bilateral mechanism and military partner and also means that the Japan Self-Defense Forces have an additional destination where they can carry out military missions abroad.

Again, Japan is targeting Southeast Asian and South Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, by signing the Agreement on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology to remove arms export restrictions and using "Support for Strengthening Government Security Capacity" and targeted assistance and preferential sales to reduce these potential users' concerns about Japan's unfamiliarity with and affordability of its weapons and equipment. We will reduce the concerns of these potential users about Japan's unfamiliarity with its weapons and equipment and their affordability. At the same time, deepening bilateral military interactions with Germany, Australia and other countries will gradually stimulate demand for interoperability of military equipment, creating opportunities for future joint research and development of weapons and technologies.

In recent years, Japan, within the strategic framework defined by the United States, has willingly become a strategic "beachhead" to lead the extraterritorial countries in East Asia and even the Western Pacific region, and has attracted and encouraged the United Kingdom, Germany and France to participate in the security affairs of the region, with the aim of restoring order in the Indo-Pacific and taking advantage of the opportunity to compete for the so-called regional competitive advantage.

Analysts point out that at this stage Japan is mainly promoting the establishment of bilateral military cooperation with many countries, and that in the future the possibility cannot be ruled out that it may also build a broad and intertwined military alliance on the basis of the military partnership network centered on the Japan-U.S. alliance.

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