Analysis: Japan’s Defense Future


KAWASAKI, Japan — Against these challenges and threats, Japan is fast approaching the need to make several critical defense-related decisions. Japan must re-prioritize its defense spending to effectively deter rising challenges without a substantial increase in the defense budget. Japan must also alter its existing defense policy, which remains rooted in the logic and of the Cold War.

Here are challenges preoccupying Japanese policymakers:

– A greater array of threats. Japan faces a more diverse array of external threats than ever before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s main threat to Japan lay in its ability to blockade the Home Islands and conduct a landing on Hokkaido. That threat is gone, but a new palette of new threats have replaced it, from the prospect of North Korean nuclear weapons, to various disputes with China, and even international terrorism.

Increased belligerency from neighbors. After a relatively quiet previous two decades, China and Russia have become increasingly belligerent in their relations with Japan over the last year. China has begun asserting itself near the disputed Senkaku islands, sometimes aggressively, and went all-out to secure the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain detained when his fishing boat rammed a Japan Coast Guard vessel. Russia has re-emphasized its claim to the disputed Northern Territories, going so far as using the dispute over their ownership to justify purchasing large amphibious vessels.

– China now spends three times as much on defense as Japan. China’s defense spending over the past ten years has increased at an average of 15% a year. Japan, on the other hand, has kept defense spending flat. (Japan has a self-imposed 1% of GDP spending cap on defense, and currently that number is actually at something like .88% ) A prudent Japan can only look at that upward trajectory of Chinese spending and conclude that, with American power parceled out worldwide and Chinese power concentrated less than 1,000 miles from Japan, Japan also has to increase spending. The question is whether or not Japan will be wise enough to resist being dragged into arms races that count plane vs. plane and ship vs. ship.

– Doing away with the arms export ban. The arms export ban is based on the “3 Principles” laid out by Prime Minister Einsaku Sato in the mid-1960s: 1. no selling to the communist bloc, 2.) no selling to countries under UN arms embargo, and 3.) no countries involved in or likely to be involved in armed conflicts. While theoretically this only excluded a minority of countries, the arms ban was understood to apply to all countries with the exception of the United States.

Although it would be deeply unpopular with Japanese citizens, the ban appears set to weaken. The immediate cause of this is joint weapons development undertaken with the United States, which the U.S. will then seek to export to third parties. Farther out, there are other reasons: Japanese defense contractors are forbidding from selling their wares abroad, and the relatively modest size of the Self Defense Forces, coupled with the growing cost of modern weapons, ensures high prices for the government and low profits for the contractors. Exporting weapons that the government buys would allow all parties to take advantage of economies of scale. Finally, the insatiable global market for arms may not be something that Japan, which is known as a quality exporter and that could use another market to compete in, cannot ignore forever.

– A lack of “punch” in the Self Defense Forces. The SDF, true to its goal of being a purely defensive force, deliberately does not own such things as aircraft carriers, bombers, and cruise missiles. The lack of offensive capability in the Self Defense Forces means that, without American intervention, any country picking a fight with Japan would not have to worry about losing but instead merely not winning. Japan lacks the ability to carry the fight to an enemy’s homeland and actually win a war. Japan is also incapable of acting preemptively — for example, destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad that is aimed at Japan. The immense destructive power of nuclear weapons, paired with missile delivery systems, raises the consequences of inaction even higher.

Japan is incapable of standing alone in Asia. Whether some people in Japan like it or not, Japan is stuck with America as its key ally. Russia is unpleasant and uncooperative. Korea is divided and Korean nationalism will preclude any serious cooperation with Japan for the foreseeable future. In the latest iteration of the Pacific power triumvirate, Japan can stand with China or the United States against the other, but there are ideological and historical reasons that prevent Japan from siding with China. There is also a great deal of utility in aligning with other old adversaries, including Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India.

– Japan needs to recognize it has the right to collective self-defense. One component of the U.S. – Japan alliance that some observers don’t realize is that while the U.S. is explicitly obliged to defend Japan, Japan is under no obligation to reciprocate. Japan currently interprets its constitution as expressly prohibiting “collective self defense”. However, to enter into more mature, mutually beneficial security relationships with other countries, Japan is going to have to accept responsibility for the defense of other countries. America’s alliance with Japan was a unique deal borne out of the Cold War, and no other nation will pledge to defend Japan without reciprocation.

Japan’s security situation is ripe for change 

There are a number of initiatives Tokyo can take to strengthen its strategic situation without markedly increasing defense spending, or reciprocating the belligerency of neighboring states.

– Greater cooperation with South Korea and the United States. The three powers share interest in areas such as counterproliferation, ballistic missile defense, protection of the sea lanes, and anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Direct, one-on-one cooperation by Japan with South Korea may not be feasible at this time, but both sides may be amenable to cooperating under an initiative led by the United States. In the area of Ballistic Missile Defense, all three powers are essentially threatened by the same nuclear-armed states, so it follows all might benefit from cooperation on ballistic missile defense. While Japan already has an effective ballistic missile defense, cooperation with other countries means access to shared assets and capabilities. An organization based on the North American Air Defense Commandcould be established to command and control regional BMD assets to provide a common response to threats.

– Evolve an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capability. Japan’s Self Defense Forces are highly specialized and effective in preventing an adversary from establishing air superiority over Japan, successfully executing a BMD attack, closing Japan’s sea lanes, or invading Japan outright. But in order for Chinese naval forces to sortie into the Northwestern Pacific, they must transit areas close to Japanese territory. The ability to close off China’s access to the Northwestern Pacific with mines, small missile-armed craft, and submarines would go a long way towards curbing Chinese belligerence without resorting to a conventional weapons arms race.

– Increase the ability to project so-called “soft power”. Japan should commission one or more hospital ships with the ability to rapidly send medical and humanitarian expertise overseas. These ships could be sent throughout the Pacific Rim, even into the Indian Ocean and the coast of Africa, to provide humanitarian relief and assistance. Such ships would go a long way towards cooling anti-Japanese enmity in many parts of Asia. To avoid the appearance of being part of a more expeditionary Japanese military, these ships could be placed under command of the Japan Coast Guard, which is under the jurisdiction of the the Ministry of Transportation. In addition, the Ground Self Defense Forces, which have a prodigious number of engineers, could transfer some to the Ministry of Transportation as well, to create an organization capable of doing everything from building roads in remote areas to reopening airports and port facilities after a natural disaster.

– Drop the arms export ban. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in selling arms to responsible governments, and selling arms abroad to such governments could bring in much-needed revenue. The export ban is generally not seen by the outside world as a credible way to decrease the number of conflicts worldwide. (In comparison Sweden, which is one of the biggest arms exporters in the world, is generally seen as a country that promotes peace in useful ways that have nothing to do with arms sales.)

– Joint weapons development and procurement with other countries. The spiraling cost of weapons development, as well the relatively small number of per-unit weapons purchases by the Self-Defense Forces is making weapons procurement extremely expensive. Also, although Japan has a reputation for being a high-tech nation, it does lag behind other nations in the development of certain technologies, the most critical of which being fighter development. Japan could, for example, pair with the United States, Sweden, or France to undertake fighter development, all of which are friendly countries with advanced fighter industries.

Although Japan has had a longstanding tradition of building weapons domestically, it may be time for it to simply give up certain industrial bases in the interests of cost-efficiency. Japan could, for example, purchase amphibious vessels from France, and small arms from Germany. These are just examples, but they’re examples of areas where Japanese industry is either not up to world standard or would require a significant investment to begin production. Buying off-the-shelf in some areas would allow Japan to increase investment in other, vital areas.

– Generate the ability to pre-emptively destroy existential threats. If Japan were under threat of an imminent ballistic missile attack from North Korea, the lack of offensive weapons in Japan’s inventory means it could not strike first and destroy the threat even if it wanted to. Japan’s sole strategy would be to use its’ BMD defenses to absorb the attack, and then either wait until North Korea were out of missiles or convince the United States to retaliate. Either response would be entirely out of the hands of Japan. When diplomacy has failed, Japan must have the ability to destroy threats to its existence, particularly when those involved weapons of mass destruction.

– The deeper Japan’s relationships with other countries, the safer it is. The next step for Japan is joint operations with other countries. Japan’s best bet for the future is to burrow into relationships with key allies as deeply as possible, and strive for maximum interoperability. Although the United States and Japan have enjoyed a bilateral defense relationship for fifty years, joint commands between the two have been unheard of. As an example, Raymond Pritchett at the naval security blog Information Dissemination has proposed putting Japanese fighter squadrons on American aircraft carriers.

– The redefining of Japanese security policy as able to accept collective self-defense, and a pledge to defend America would give Japan the more equal alliance with the United States that the new DPJ-led government proclaims it wants, but Japan seems averse to taking the step. Nevertheless, the inherent unfairness of Japan’s stance on collective security is obvious to all and must eventually change.

Altogether, the implementation of these suggestions would not only increase Japan’s security position, they would also help bring it, in international relations terms, into the realm of modern nations. A Japan that can project hard and soft power at will, act preemptively against threats, actively defend other countries, and is fully integrated with its allies is a Japan that has all the functions of a modern state.

Kyle Mizokami is a founder and editor of Japan Security Watch, a blog devoted to Japanese security issues. He also writes for the defense and conflict blog War Is Boring.




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