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Japan's military becoming more global

The trend pleases Washington, which would like help in Afghanistan.

March 29, 2009|Eric Talmadge | Talmadge writes for the Associated Press.

CAMP MAKOMANAI, JAPAN — Col. Kenji Sawai, commander of Japan's 18th Infantry Regiment, stands in his headquarters dressed from head to foot in white camouflage. Skis clutter the hallways of his outpost in the snow-covered mountains of northern Japan, along with stacks of white ponchos, gloves and boots.

For decades, the mission for Japanese officers such as Sawai has been fairly straightforward: Defend the homeland. Narrowly defined, for Sawai and his infantrymen, that means protecting the island of Hokkaido, where the regiment is based, from invasion.

Now that definition is changing.

The political leadership and military planners -- with the blessing of Washington, their closest ally -- are cautiously moving the military away from its longtime role as a stay-at-home force. The new stance, while still centered on national defense, allows troops to be sent all over the world for a broad range of operations.

Lawmakers are mulling calls from the United States for Tokyo to send "boots on the ground" to bolster President Obama's stepped-up efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. The U.S. has said it would welcome a dispatch of soldiers.

Though such a move would be controversial among the public and is unlikely any time soon, the government has taken a number of steps that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. It sent 600 troops to Iraq, albeit in a noncombat role; it has a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean that supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan; and it has sent two naval ships to the waters off Somalia to help battle pirates.

The tentative transition is reshaping the balance of power in Northeast Asia -- one of the world's most volatile and heavily armed regions -- and could be a key to Japan's security as China's military rises and North Korea continues to be a nuclear-capable wild card.

Sawai's remote command, a series of drab beige barracks surrounded by sprawling marching fields, is already seeing the trickle-down effect.

At this year's "North Wind" exercises, annual maneuvers held with the United States, American commanders said training involved more joint attacks, more collaboration, closer command and control -- just the kind of thing that would be needed if the Japanese were to be fighting alongside the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We have never actually been to war, and there are many things that we want to learn from the U.S. soldiers," Sawai said after addressing his troops and several hundred U.S. National Guard soldiers who came to his base from Kentucky for the 11-day maneuvers.

It was a striking contrast: Many of the American guardsmen have been sent to war zones two or three times, while no Japanese soldier has fired a bullet in combat since Tokyo's 1945 surrender ended World War II -- thanks largely to a pacifist constitution written by U.S. occupiers to keep Japan from rearming.

Sawai said the exercises were not directly intended to prepare the Japanese for deployment overseas.

"Defense is our mission," Sawai said. "That has not changed."

Still, the new, more aggressive role of Japan's military is hard to ignore.

Japan has about 240,000 uniformed troops, with about 130,000 of them in the army, which is formally known as the Ground Self-Defense Force. Because of sensitivities left over from the last century, the military itself is known as the Self-Defense Force.

Constitutional restrictions have barred the military from acquiring an aircraft carrier or some air-to-air refueling capabilities needed for long-range strikes, which are crucial for the projection of force but are considered too aggressive to meet the nation's defense-only rules. Unlike China's double-digit defense spending growth, Japan's has remained flat for years. China has for years outspent Japan.

Even so, Japan has one of the best-funded and highly regarded militaries in the world. Its navy in particular is regarded as second only the U.S. Navy in the region.

This month, after much haggling in parliament, two Japanese destroyers were dispatched to waters off Somalia to join the multinational fight against piracy. Two more destroyers were sent to the Sea of Japan to monitor North Korean missile activity. And late last year, Japanese troops ended a four-year humanitarian and airlift mission in Iraq, the military's biggest overseas operation since World War II.

Tokyo has worked closely with Washington to erect a multibillion-dollar ballistic missile shield to protect the country -- and the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed here -- from a potential attack by Japan's unpredictable and often belligerent neighbor, North Korea.

Elements of that shield could soon be tested if North Korea, as expected, test-launches its first long-range ballistic missile since a failed attempt in 2006. North Korea claims the launch is intended to put a satellite into orbit, but Japanese officials have said they are prepared to respond if the missile's trajectory poses a threat to Japan's territory.

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