Japan's prime minister just made a seemingly impossible promise

RTX1AP2QREUTERS / Kevin LamarqueJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes a question wile addressing a joint news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, April 28, 2015.

Japan’s prime minister says that the country would not involved itself in a war being fought by the US, The Washington Post reports.

“I want to make clear that Japan will never become entangled in a war being fought by the United States,” Shinzo Abe told reporters at a news conference Thursday, which was held after his government approved changes to laws governing restrictions on the Japanese self-defence forces.

“We’ve been tying to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance, which is the center of our country’s security,” The prime minister continued. “The ties between Japan and the U.S. are much stronger than ever due to my recent visit to the US.”

Ironically, the newly approved legislation actually broadens the defensive alliance between Japan and the US. So any promise that Japan would steer clear of becoming entangled with a US war could prove impossible for Abe to keep if a conflict breaks out in the region.

And whereas the previous defensive alliance only allowed Japan to come to the military aid of the US if American assets were attacked while defending Japan, the new laws allow Tokyo to send forces to help the US after an attack even if the American forces were not currently defending Japan.

Critically, this would allow Japan to send members of its self-defence forces abroad to support US operations in another country.

Japan’s post-World War II constitution, the country’s self-defence forces were limited to a force that could only be used defensively or in international humanitarian missions. In the new terms, any overseas deployments would have to be approved by Japan on a case by case basis.

Japan military exerciseYuya Shino/REUTERSA Japanese military exercise

The expansion of powers for the Japanese military is unprecedented, and also widely unpopular in Japan.

The new legislation allowing Japan to now send troops abroad runs counter to the majority of Japanese public opinion. In a 2013 Pew research poll, 56% of the Japanese public said they were opposed to any sort of Japanese military effort other than defence, although there was a gradual trend towards military action becoming more acceptable within the Japanese public.

The expansion of the Japanese military will also increase frictions throughout Asia. The US has recently openly mulled plans over sending naval assets to the disputed South China Sea in support of the Philippines. Beijing has said it was “extremely concerned” by the move, and a Chinese expert has said the move could lead to an escalation in the area.

Currently, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia all have competing claims in the region. As Beijing increases its pull in the South China Sea by dredging islands and creating airstrips, the US has militarily injected itself into the debate to shore up the defence of the Philippines.

Should an incident break out between China and the US in the South China Sea, the Pentagon could call upon Japan for military assistance. Of course, as the US extends military support across the globe — to the Gulf countries against Iran, or South Korea against North Korea to name two potential hotspots — Tokyo could find demand for its troops far away from the shores of Japan.

All of which makes Abe’s promise surprising and theoretically unrealistic.

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