international analysis and commentary

Japan’s new national defense program – shaping up for the 21st century?

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Japan announced its defense program in mid-December foreseeing a more dynamic, proactive and flexible military approach in the next decade. This policy shift could be simply described as rebalancing and adjusting Japan’s threat assessment and priorities from the Cold War era to the rising power of China. In fact, it has even wider implications: the new Japanese blueprint offers an insight into future strategic developments in the Asia Pacific region where, in accord with the US and its other allies, Japan is getting ready to play a prominent role.

The ten-year strategic plan envisages a Japanese “dynamic defense force”, designed to deal with increasing territorial, sovereignty and economic issues of contention in Asia – mostly risks and threats from China and North Korea. Two recent episodes illustrate the complex geostrategic situation of the region.

In September, Japanese authorities captured a Chinese fishing trawler in Japan’s territorial waters, sparking a diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing. The incident over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and their uncertain maritime boundaries exemplifies possible future scenarios with tensions over access to territory and natural resources. Four proven natural gas fields are present in this area and the collision of Chinese and Japanese vessels is just a reflection of greater competition to secure natural resources and protect vital sea-lanes.

At the end of November, North Korea’s attack over the island of Yeonpyeong near the border with South Korea reminded Tokyo of the risks a “rogue state” may pose, and undoubtedly increased the sense of urgency in Japan over threats from neighboring countries. It also confronted Japan with the reality of having to work trilaterally with the US and South Korea in responding to North Korean intimidation. Again, this episode might anticipate a future contingency in which the US pulls together Japan alongside other allies such as South Korea, and perhaps Australia and even India in support of regional security. It thus comes as no surprise that Japan plans to strengthen security cooperation with these very countries.

According to the Japanese National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), a shift in resources from the army to the air force and navy will take place in the next few years. In particular, Japan’s submarine fleet will be expanded from 16 to 22 and its fighter jets upgraded, while the number of tanks will be cut by a third (to 400).

More importantly the new policy of “dynamic defense”, will supersede the long held “static defense” priority. There has been much speculation regarding the exact meaning of “dynamic” in this context. Most scholars read it as Japan having a more effective military and naval operability, greater power projection capabilities and improved flexibility to respond to unconventional threats such as cyber security.

These changes go hand in hand with the US desire for Japan to play a stronger security role in the region. The US continues to have huge power and influence even over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Since the DPJ’s inability to renegotiate the relocation of the Futenma military base – which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama – the US-Japan alliance is safely on the same track as with the previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) political establishment. It is important to remember that Japan still hosts almost 50,000 US troops on its territory. Although plans for the gradual transfer of marines to Guam were announced at the end of the year, infrastructure there is far from ready.

Another remarkable development, although not evident in the defense review, is that the Japanese government has been considering loosening the country’s ban on selling weapons overseas. The DPJ, confronted with internal squabbles with its socialist ally in parliament and a “pacifist psyche” in Japanese public opinion, has still not pushed this reform through. But it seems only a question of time before Japan will be able to export its military systems and defense technology to foreign markets. In any case, we should expect greater efforts to pursue technological research and development in cooperation with the US – for instance over missile defense – and to a much lesser extent with European counterparts.

The overall defense budget is to remain about the same, at 0.9% of GDP. At times of global economic downturn – with the Japanese budget deficit skyrocketing and a very slow recovery underway – this is a statement in its own right. When compared to the growth of China’s military budget – growing at twice the pace – Japan has no other choice than redistribute its existing military resources more efficiently.

For example, China is reported to have started the development of its first aircraft carrier to be rolled out as early as 2012. Japan is unable to compete on this scale, and its anxiety over this trend is reflected in a rather explicit statement in the NDPG: “military modernization by China and its insufficient transparency are of concern for the regional and global community.” The use of such strong language has the added goal of putting under the spotlight not only Chinese military progress per se but also the murky relations between China and North Korea.

Thus, Japan’s defense guidelines will make the self-defense forces better able to respond to the imminent threat from North Korea and other minor maritime incidents. Japan will bring up to speed its capability to retaliate more effectively, conduct military training exercises and be more pro-active when called upon by its allies.

As the US clearly considers the Asia-Pacific region vital for its strategic and economic interests, over the next few years a stronger US position can be envisaged – especially once resources are freed up from the Middle East and possibly AfPak. This shift will mostly focus on balancing the rising power and influence of China in cooperation with America’s allies.

Therefore, it seems inevitable that the Japanese defense priority will gradually become containment of Chinese maritime power – hence the vital importance of protecting disputed territorial waters and securing vital sea lanes and access to natural resources. The new NDPG clearly posits this scenario and sends a strong message that Japan is getting prepared.