Evolutionary or Revolutionary? Japan’s Defense Strategy

Posted on August 11, 2012


Despite criticism – with some stating Tokyo has its eye on nuclear weapons – Japanese security thinking has changed only incrementally.

Publication of Japan’s newest defense white paper has triggered the usual dark speculations about the country’s future. Conversations in Beijing and Seoul begin with the premise that Japan is becoming more right wing in its defense policy and political orientation. Yes, the nation of “Asahi-reading realists” is becoming less blinkered in its assessment of the regional security environment. But the evolution in Japanese security thinking is evolutionary: changes remain incremental and the bulwarks against a radical shift remain firmly in place.

The white paper rightly notes that the Asia-Pacific region “is considerably rich in political, economic, ethnic, and religious diversity, and conflicts between countries/regions remain.” North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear program are considered “a significant threat” to Japan, while China’s military modernization effort and lack of transparency “are a source of concern,” as are “its expanding and intensifying activities in waters close to Japan.”

The white paper concludes, reasonably enough, that “defense capabilities are vital for ensuring an appropriate response to various contingencies arising from the security challenges and destabilizing factors, which are diverse, complex, and intertwined…” In particular it calls for “building up functions such as warning and surveillance, maritime patrols, air defense, response to ballistic missiles, transportation, and command control communications …” To the objective observer, these all look like defensive measures.

Nevertheless, recent conversations in China and Korea have been punctuated by alarm about Japanese intentions. Revisions in the outer space law and national energy policy, and the call for reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right to join collective self-defense efforts, all elicited criticism and concern. The critics are right to note a rightward drift in the center of gravity of Japanese national security policy. The Democratic Party of Japan under Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has embraced an agenda that would warm the heart of – and spark considerable envy in – its Liberal Democratic Party predecessors. To some degree, this reflects the prime minister’s own inclinations, but it is also part of a wider phenomenon: the left in Japan is dispirited and fighting for its political life after three years of disappointment under DPJ rule, while the right is rejuvenated and focused on a particular agenda (as always).

But the basic defensive orientation remains.  Rarely noted by the critics, the white paper also points out that “Japan has been building a modest defense capability under the Constitution for exclusively defense-oriented purposes without becoming a military power that could threaten other countries, while adhering to the principle of civilian control of the military, observing the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, and firmly maintaining the Japan–U.S. Security Arrangements.” Considerable emphasis is also put on multilateral and cooperative efforts to boost regional security.

There has also been alarm about Japan’s new energy policy. In particular, some of its neighbors worry Tokyo recently amending Atomic Energy Basic Law to identify nuclear power as “a national security” concern. This doesn’t mean that Tokyo is hell bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, as some have suggested. Rather, it means reliable supplies of energy are indeed a matter of national security. An advisory panel has endorsed the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, but the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has ruled out any reinterpretation of the charter to permit such a move without actually changing the constitution. Don’t hold your breath. And finally, as a reminder of how potent obstacles are and how sensitive security policy remains, the government has shelved legislation to change rules of engagement for the Self-Defense Forces as they participate in peacekeeping activities. They still aren’t allowed to shoot unless they are fired upon first. Add the public’s deeply ingrained pacifism and general budget restraints, and the prospect of a militarized, aggressive Japan looks unconnected to reality.

Efforts to put Japanese defense thinking in context frequently fall on deaf ears in Asia. Rather than highlight the white paper’s identification of South Korea as the country that “shares the closest relationship with Japan historically and in various areas such as economy and culture,” Koreans focus on language that says Japan retains a claim to Takeshima – the islands that Korea holds as Dokdo. The white paper also begins with a positive assessment of China’s evolution, noting that Japan “welcomes the fact that China, which is growing into a big power, has started playing a major role in the world and the region in both name and reality.” Meanwhile, Beijing counters that Japan is playing with fire when it reasserts its claim to the Senkaku/Daoyutai islands. Chinese analysts liken Japan to North Korea, insisting that the tail threatens to wag the dog and warning that Tokyo could drag the U.S. into a conflict with China over the disputed territory.

Those claims aren’t just disingenuous and the obstinacy isn’t just frustrating – they are dangerous.  The misreading of Japanese intentions filtered through the lens of history and political correctness – Korean and Chinese analysts privately agree with this analysis, but won’t say so in a public setting – rattles neighbors and has the potential to trigger a cycle of action and reaction. Even though every nation in Northeast Asia proclaims its own benign intentions, it sees its neighbors’ actions as demanding a response, a situation that looks alarmingly like a security dilemma. So, even if my characterization of Japanese intentions is correct, the misinterpretations and reactions that might be triggered could destabilize the region.

This dynamic is another reason why it is so important for Japan to build stronger ties with South Korea. Apart from the goals, interests, and values they share, and the ability of the two nations to leverage their strengths when they work together, sustained cooperation and collaboration – the planning perhaps even more than the actual doing – is a confidence building measure that can dampen tensions. These measures remind the Japanese that they are not surrounded by hostile nations.

Of course it is important for Koreans to better understand Japanese thinking and behavior. But it is equally (if not more) valuable for Japan to know that it is not isolated within the region, and that it has a partner with which it can work with and that seeks to engage Tokyo as well. This is an important vote of confidence for Japan, one that will help keep it outward-oriented when domestic pressures demand an inward focus. This confidence will diminish Japan’s fears that the regional security environment, while complex, is not hostile to Japan. While Japan continues to tread a well-worn path in its security policy, isolation and intimidation could make the currently unfounded fears of Japan’s neighbors quite real.

Brad Glosserman

Japan’s Defence White Paper 2012 and China’s Critical Response

Chinese Fishing Boat Sets Off Sino-Japanese Conflict

On July 31, the Japanese government released the 2012 edition of the Defence White Paper titled ‘The Defense of Japan 2012’. While submitting the report for Cabinet approval, Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto delivered a speech throwing some light on the document. Pointing out the rapidly changing security environment in East Asia, Morimoto particularly talked about the significant developments in China and North Korea in the last one decade. China’s military build-up and its constant military flexing in the Asia-Pacific region were the major highlights of Morimoto’s comments as well as in the Defence White Paper. Just like the previous edition of the Defence White Paper in 2011, this year too, the report warns that China’s military movements are “a matter of concern” for the Asian region and the international community, and “should require prudent analysis.”1

Key Points on China
While underscoring China’s rapid military build-up, the White Paper states that China’s defence spending has grown more than double the level it was five years ago.2 Chinese military spending has also reportedly expanded around 30-times over the last 24 years. China’s Defence Budget this year, for the first time, topped the $100 billion mark,3 which is now more than 1.6 times that of Japan.4 Although the White Paper acknowledges that the defence figures provided by China might not disclose the entirety of its military spending, it argues that the gap between Japan and China on defence spending will almost certainly continue to widen further in the future. The Paper further argues that the growing defence spending of China has raised concerns in the international community due to which, of late, many countries and the US in particular has been shifting its defence strategy to focus more on Asia. Here, while emphasizing upon the Japan-US military alliance, the Paper also advocates the effective construction of Japan’s defence.

While highlighting China’s naval exercises, the White Paper states that China “plans to expand the sphere of its maritime activities” and carry out its operations “as an ordinary routine practice” in waters surrounding Japan, including the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea”. The report also accuses Beijing of ‘intruding’ into Japan’s ‘territorial waters’ by carrying out major patrols near the Japanese territory of the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands), which has been claimed by China as its own territory.

The White Paper also expressed the Japanese government’s increasing concern over China’s decision to strengthen surveillance around the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea region.5 Here, the Paper cites two instances (in March-April 2011 and April 2012) in which Chinese helicopters, which appeared to belong to the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) of China, flew close to Japanese destroyers engaged in vigilance monitoring around the Senkaku area.6 While pointing out China’s long-standing territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea region, the White Paper speculates upon the intentions behind Chinese activities to protect “maritime rights and interests” and “energy resources.”7

More significantly, the White Paper for the first time points out a shift in China’s power structure. While noting that military-decision making is not transparent in China, the Paper argues that given the increasing number of cases in which the Chinese military has expressed its own stance on security issues, the relationship between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to have “been getting complex”. Citing the PLA’s increasing influence on political decision making, the report states that this is a “risk management issue” and caution should be taken while dealing with the powerful PLA.8

On the domestic problems faced by China, the White Paper points out corruption at the levels of both the central and local communist leadership, regional disparities between urban-rural and coastal-inland regions, inflation, environmental pollution, rapid aging of population, etc. According to the Paper, all these factors could destabilize the government in China. Domestic ethnic minority issues in Tibet and Xinjiang might also complicate the situation further. The Paper also argues that although after autumn 2012 China might witness a substantial reshuffle in the CCP leadership, the next government would still have to deal with all these challenges.9

China’s Response
The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “strong discontentment” with the White Paper’s apparent concern over China’s rapid military expansion. While offering China’s stance on the Paper, Geng Yansheng, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defence, stated: “China strongly opposes the groundless criticisms of its national defense development and military activity, as well as irresponsible remarks regarding China’s internal affairs, made in Japan’s defense white paper.”10 While reiterating China’s adherence to the road of peaceful development and maintenance of a purely defensive military policy, Geng stated that “China will continue to organize normal military exercises and training activities and resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty and marine rights.”11 Geng even alleged that Japan was making excuses for its continued arms expansion, reinforcement of military alliances and “distorting facts” about regional security concerns.12

Chinese academics have been highly critical of Japan’s recent Defence White Paper. They mostly argue that the Paper is a clear proof of Japan using its ambition for military independence to stage a military comeback. Critics are also of the view that the latest report lacks coherence possibly because in the last one year Japan changed its defence minister four times.13

Many Chinese scholars are of the view that after the 2010 National Defense Program Outline (NDPO), Japan has tried to deviate from its “Basic Defense Force” approach and is focusing more on a new security strategy based on a “multifunctional, flexible, and effective defense force” with a highly capable “dynamic deterrence” capacity. In this context, Li Wei, Director of the Institute of Japanese Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that Japan on one hand appears to be following the US strategy of balancing China’s military development while on the other it aims to realize its own military independence.

Such changes in Japan’s defence posture have made it possible for Tokyo to step up its efforts to intervene in the South China Sea affairs along with other regional countries including Philippines and Vietnam. While arguing that the Japan-US alliance is no longer as asymmetrical as before, Li observes that Japan has already turned it into a convenient tool to become a ‘normal country.’14

According to Ye Hailin, a professor in international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Japan, by pointing out China’s ordinary progress in defence enhancement as a regional security concern, has shown its “unbalanced mindset”. He argues that the passing of Chinese naval vessels near the waters of Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is completely legal and justified as they were transiting the international watercourse into the Pacific Ocean. Huo Jiangang, an expert on Japanese Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), further argues that China has not violated the freedom of navigation in these waters as argued by the report. He alleged that Tokyo is “taking its imagination as a fact” and is misleading not only the Japanese people, but also the international community.15

Many Chinese critics also argue that the Defence White Papers’ continued insistence on the ‘China threat theory’ is reflective of Japan’s Cold War mentality, right-wing thoughts and fear of China. According to them, Japan should treat China’s development as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Instead of deliberately creating international tension by making irresponsible comments and mischievous speculations about China, Tokyo should make a correct assessment of the situation and adopt the right attitude towards China’s peaceful rise.16

So far, Tokyo has not made any official comment on China’s sharp response to the White Paper. However, many Japanese academics and policy analysts have put forward their own stance about the Paper. Most of them seem to believe that to deal with China’s rapid military modernization and its increasing activities around Japanese territorial waters, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) too should steadily strengthen their surveillance and patrol activities.

They also insist that as the lack of transparency in Chinese military capabilities and decision-making process has been an issue of concern, Tokyo should pay close attention on that issue. Japan also needs to enhance its “dynamic defense cooperation” with the United States. Although critical of China’s military build-up, Japanese analysts however contend that there is an urgent need to step up the confidence-building measures between the two countries by reactivating bilateral defence exchanges.

  1. 1. “Defense White Paper rightly highlights need for caution over China”, The Yomiuri Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/editorial/T120801005165.htm.
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. Akio Mie, “China flexing more muscle in Pacific: Report”, The Japan Times, August 1, 2012, at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120801a3.html.
  4. 4. “Defense White Paper rightly highlights need for caution over China”, The Yomiuri Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/editorial/T120801005165.htm.
  5. 5. “Defense Paper detects shift in Chinese power”, Yomiuri Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120731004291.htm
  6. 6. “Defense of Japan 2012”, Ministry of Defense (Japan), at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/pdf/2012/07_Part1_Chapter1_Sec3.pdf. (accessed on August 7, 2012)
  7. 7. Zhang Yunbi, “Defense paper plays up naval issue”, China Daily, August1, 2012, at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-08/01/content_15636607.htm
  8. 8. “Defense White Paper rightly highlights need for caution over China”, The Yomiuri Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/editorial/T120801005165.htm.
  9. 9. “Defense of Japan 2012”, Ministry of Defense (Japan), at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/pdf/2012/07_Part1_Chapter1_Sec3.pdf. (accessed on August 7, 2012)
  10. 10. “China opposes criticism in Japan defense paper’, The China Daily, August 3, 2012, at http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-08/03/content_15641723.htm
  11. 11. Ibid.
  12. 12. Ibid.
  13. 13. Wang Chenyan, “Japan seeks military comeback: Expert”, The China Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-08/01/content_15636615.htm
  14. 14. Ibid.
  15. 15. Zhang Yunbi, “Defense paper plays up naval issue”, China Daily, August1, 2012, at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-08/01/content_15636607.htm
  16. 16. “Japan’s defense paper reflects Cold War mentality”, The China Daily, August 1, 2012, at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2012-08/01/content_15638569.htm
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