Weighing Japan’s security options in the age of Trump
Shinzo Abe's options range from tooling Japan up on its own to supporting the US alliance with greater resources. Only the latter path is viable.
Japan has always viewed America’s commitment to the US-Japan alliance and its willingness to defend Japan with skepticism. In recent years, its doubts have intensified as China has contested Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands, and nearby North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have continued unabated. Donald Trump’s election, after criticizing Japan for “free-riding” and not paying its fair share for the American forces defending it — has deepened anxieties.
In light of this, it is worth considering Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s options for hedging against faltering American military support — real or perceived. These options range from Japan arming itself — potentially with nuclear weapons — to handle its own defense, to the country simply increasing its financial and operational contribution to the defense alliance to a level that ensures American commitment. The latter would be Japan’s most logical option, though pique and resentment often trump logic in foreign affairs.
Option 1: Going it alone
Beefing up Japan’s military capabilities to the point where it can singlehandedly defend its territory and interests in the Asia region would prove challenging, to put it mildly.
This would require doubling the size of the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF). Given Japan’s aging and shrinking population and shortage of military-age males (and females), conscription would presumably be necessary — a most unpopular idea in today’s Japan.
Next, defense spending would need to at least double from the current annual US$50 billion budget. Japan has the money, but this would be immensely problematic politically — not to mention that it would provoke Chinese howls of protest and give the PRC a premise to push further ahead with its own aggressive military buildup.
Japan would need far larger numbers of ships, aircraft and other military hardware. This would be good for the local defense industry and foreign suppliers, but it would be costly and require considerable additional personnel to man and operate the new equipment.
Japan would also need a CIA, as well as a comprehensive satellite and electronic surveillance network akin to the US’ National Geospatial Agency and National Security Agency. One doesn’t just snap one’s fingers and produce either of these.
In order to effectively deal with both PRC and North Korean missile threats, Japan requires a greatly expanded missile defense network — and would also need “offensive” ballistic missiles to ensure a credible deterrent.
Finally, Japan would almost certainly have to produce its own nuclear weapons. This is, of course, politically sensitive both in Japan and in the wider region. Moreover, nuclear weapons are not quite the failsafe weapon they appear to be. Even the implicit threat of Japan using them has its limits — as both China and North Korean might be glad to call Tokyo’s bluff.
These are all daunting hurdles for any Japanese administration — politically, operationally, logistically, and, to a lesser degree, financially.
US$50 billion a year might seem like a lot of money, and it is if one is defending Bolivia — but Japan’s defense is rather more complicated and requires more money
Japan has plenty of space for new military bases, along with dozens of underused airfields and ports — assuming extra manpower is available. But public reaction to a thoroughgoing national “re-militarization” is problematic — even given current levels of anxiety over threatening behavior from China and North Korea, and barring an actual attack on Japan.
Japanese public opinion would have to be reconfigured: over the last 70 years the country has become accustomed to having a modest, unthreatening military presence, while US forces — tucked away on a few scattered bases — also maintain a low profile.
Even if Japan somehow did “all of the above,” without American support the country’s adversaries — China, North Korea, even Russia — would be emboldened. Indeed, Japan would struggle to do more than simply defend its immediate territory: it would effectively cede control and influence over just about everywhere further afield, including the South China Sea and its vital sea-lanes.
Option 2: Keeping the Americans on board
Mr Abe really has to do very little: upgrade existing JSDF capabilities — particularly for joint operations; spend more money on Japan’s own defense (as opposed to the “host nation support” it gives US forces in Japan); and integrate Japanese forces with US forces to a greater extent, along the lines of what the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) have already achieved.
The US Government would be delighted if Japan upgraded JSDF capabilities and took on more of its own defense while linking more closely with US forces — even if motivated only by the fear of losing US security coverage.
Doing what is necessary
There has always been an element of smoke and mirrors to the JSDF and its actual ability to defend Japan from a real adversary. Japan’s military looks good on paper and is indeed a substantial force, but it suffers from the astonishing inability of its three services (Ground, Air and Maritime Self Defense Forces) to cooperate and conduct joint operations. Chronic underfunding is another longstanding problem. US$50 billion a year might seem like a lot of money, and it is if one is defending Bolivia — but Japan’s defense is rather more complicated and requires more money.
Ordering the JSDF to co-ordinate the three services — and, if necessary, have the Prime Minister fire senior officers until he finds some who will do what he says — easily solves the “jointness” problem. Spending more money — approximately 10% increases over the next five years — is equally straightforward: being the world’s third largest economy, Japan has the money. An extra US$5 billion a year on defense is peanuts if it keeps America on board.
Fixing Japan’s defense procurement deserves special mention as it would strengthen the US-Japan defense alliance. Japan’s procurement effort might be characterized as buying a little of this and a little of that — focusing on “silver bullet” and high-end weapons and hoping these frightens Japan’s adversaries — while the Americans backstop and underwrite the effort.
The Japanese government’s recent announcement that it will budget nearly US$2 billion more for missile defense typifies this haphazard — and ultimately inadequate — approach to meeting hardware requirements. The timelines and the amounts of equipment being procured also indicate a strange lack of urgency given the immediacy of North Korean and Chinese missile threats. Rather than a policy of reactively throwing money around, a more considered, comprehensive plan based on long-term threat assessments is necessary.
Mr. Abe deserves much credit for building defense ties with other nations in the region and these efforts — including the recently announced “Vientiane Vision” to increase defense cooperation with ASEAN nations — should be continued and would nicely compliment the US input. Without the Americans solidly tied in and lurking in the background, it is hard to conceive of an “alliance” (formal or informal) between Japan and any combination of other nations (including India and Australia) that would have the military heft to dissuade China from trying to dominate East Asia.
At the end of the day, Mr Abe’s, and Japan’s, best option is to stay as close to the United States as possible and do what is needed to maintain the defense alliance. The US-Japan defense relationship has worked well for the last 60 years even although it has become dangerously unbalanced over the last decade, at the same time as real threats to Japan have arisen and the prospect of Americans actually having to die on Japan’s behalf have increased accordingly.
Japan’s reaction to then-candidate Trump’s not wholly unfounded complaints about a “free-riding” Japan reminded even longtime friends of Japan that Japanese officialdom’s attitude when challenged over its contribution is too often a mixture of befuddlement and churlish self-pity.
Before meeting President-elect Trump in New York, Prime Minister Abe sent the Ministry of Foreign Affairs out to buy a golf club for Mr Trump and used some financial sophistry to argue that Japan’s host nation support is more than adequate to bolster the services of the world’s most powerful military. Instead, he might have weighed his options for defending Japan with, and without, the United States.
Mr Abe does indeed have options, but once emotion and pique are stripped away — as statesmen are supposed to do — only one of them is a good one.
Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with over 20 years experience in Japan and Asia as a US diplomat, business executive and US Marine Officer.