New defense posture mostly symbolic
By Trefor Moss
The Japanese cabinet and security council approved the country's new National
Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), the first restatement of its defense
strategy in six years, on December 17. While a familiar conundrum remains at
the heart of Japanese defense - how to react to evolving security challenges in
the context of an institutional and social aversion to meeting such challenges
with hard power - the revision did demonstrate a marked progression in Tokyo's
All the headlines about the Japanese military moving their crosshairs off
Russian targets in the north and onto new Chinese targets in the east were
over-simplistic, however. China has been rising on Japan's horizon for a very
long time, and the maritime
disputes of 2010 over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were really only the latest
episode in a long-running saga. Moreover, the language which the Ministry of
Defense used in identifying China as a factor in its planning was anything but
strident (that used to describe North Korea, and arguably Russia, was
stronger). The NDPG simply remarked that "military modernization by China and
its insufficient transparency are of concern for the regional and global
community". This was no pressing of any China-shaped panic button; it was a
statement of the obvious.
China nonetheless felt obliged to express disapproval at the mere hint that it
might be contributing to regional uncertainty. A commentator at China's
state-run Global Times, for example, accused Tokyo of "hyping the alleged China
threat" in order to justify an "ambition to play a more important role on the
In fact, this is the opposite of the truth: Japan appears determined to
rebalance the strategic equation using the minimum means necessary. Hence it is
not increasing its defense budget - which remains under 1% of GDP and around
half of China's - choosing to redistribute resources rather than attempt to
match Beijing's yearly spending hikes.
Increasing the defense budget is neither politically nor financially viable for
the current administration. But keeping defense spending more or less flat is
itself a statement of intent, given Japan's unshakeable economic gloom; and
some fairly ambitious procurement plans have been outlined for a military with
no extra cash to spend.
Upgrading the navy's submarine fleet from 16 to 22 is a particularly bold
decision, reflecting the growing number of "confrontations over territory,
sovereignty, and economic interests" which the NDPG list first among the
inclement aspects of Japan's new security environment. Japan's fleet of Aegis
destroyers will also rise from four to six, and more Patriot missile batteries
will be rolled out across the country (reversing an earlier decision to put
Patriot deployment on hold).
The document did not go into the specifics of Japan's future fighter program,
but a new aircraft - most likely the pricey but stealthy F-35 - will be
selected in the next couple of years. A trimming of the armed forces' headcount
and the scrapping of some Cold War equipment, mainly tanks, are expected to
free up funding for these new priorities.
However, a doctrinal change within the new NDPG may be the most important
indicator that Tokyo is facing up to a future in which the US may no longer be
the guarantor of Japanese security. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)
will now adopt a policy of ‘dynamic defense', abandoning the long-held
principle of ‘static defense'. The old approach was a kind of unilateral,
see-no-evil stance on national security, whereby Japan declined (at least in
theory) to balance against other countries by matching procurements and
deployments to the threats that other countries seemed to pose.
This defense-in-isolation was always more a philosophy than a workable defense
policy, and its abandonment is a sign of greater realism amongst Japan's
decision-makers - and, moreover, amongst Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)
officials, who were seen as soft on defense before their election in 2009.
In practice, Japan had already been moving towards a policy of ‘dynamic
defense': the procurement of two helicopter carriers, which are already in
active service, has been the clearest indication yet that the JSDF was seeking
to become a more reactive and more readily deployable force. But the formal
adoption of the dynamic defense policy is a symbolic recognition that Japan
needs to monitor the threats in its near abroad – especially those that impinge
on its outlying territories – and be able to respond to them according to the
But this is not a sudden change in Tokyo's thinking. The developments outlined
by the NDPG "have been coming for at least ten years and are part of a
long-term shift", explains Christopher Hughes, professor of international
politics and Japanese Studies at Warwick University. "But now we're seeing some
acceleration in the rate of change," he notes. "The submarine force increase,
for example - in Japanese terms, that was fast decision making."
Japan needs ideally to increase its defense budget in order to fully meet the
threats posed by "North Korea's nuclear development and China's aggressive
naval operations", argues Yukari Kubota, a visiting associate professor at
Osaka University, although she regards the adoption of the ‘dynamic defense'
policy as a progressive move. Yukari also advocates the revision of Japan's ban
on arms exports but suspects that nothing will be done, in spite of persistent
lobbying from the Ministry of Defense. "There is not a good chance that [the
MoD] will succeed," she says.
"The Minister of Defense, Toshimi Kitazawa, and the Minister of Foreign
Affairs, Seiji Maehara, have opened their minds to revising the arms export
ban, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan is reluctant to do it," Kari says. Opposition
from the DPJ's coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, will scare Kan
away from tackling arms exports, Yukari predicts. The prime minister is also
understood to be reluctant to go down in history as the leader who opened the
door to the international arms market, regardless of the manna that
liberalization would be for the country's struggling defense industry.
Yet the adoption of ‘dynamic defense', like the establishment of the MoD and
other reforms before it, is a reminder that the Japanese defense establishment
is walking a path of gradual but deliberate reform. The arms export ban is
itself on this slow-moving conveyor belt; the time is just not politically ripe
for it to be repealed.
China's military revolution can make Japan's defense updates - circumscribed as
they are by budget restrictions and political barriers - appear timid. Yet
China is striving to become a blue-water power; Japan is not. And for a country
that is only interested in defending itself, Japan has probably taken enough of
a step forward with its new concept of cautious dynamism.
Trefor Moss is a freelance journalist who covers Asian politics, in
particular defense, security and economic issues. He is a former Asia-Pacific
editor for Jane's Defense Weekly.