While Tokyo’s new defense guidelines don’t revise its ‘non-nuclear principles’, lift its ban on weapon and weapon technology exports, amend its ‘pacifist constitution’, or allow its soldiers to execute the right to collective self-defense – at least not yet – other remarkable transformations are contained therein.
By Axel Berkofsky for ISN Insights
The December 2010 adoption of Tokyo’s new defense guidelines – the so-called National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) first adopted in 1976 and subsequently updated in 1995 and 2004 – transform Japan’s security and defense policies from ‘basic’ to ‘flexible and dynamic’, in essence meaning that Japan now reserves the right to upgrade its military capabilities, increasing its defense expenditures beyond one percent of GDP – a self-imposed limit that has served as a guiding principle of Japanese defense policy for decades.
For an allegedly ‘pacifist’ country equipped with a constitution that does not allow for the maintenance of armed forces, it is remarkable that Japan should now contribute to regional stability by “increasing the activity” of its defense hardware and “clearly demonstrating its advanced capabilities”, according to the guidelines.
Although Tokyo will not (at least not yet) equip itself with ‘real’ offensive military power projection capabilities, the defense guidelines are clearly aimed at equipping Japan’s military capabilities to react to crisis scenarios that go beyond the defense of Japanese territory on the Japanese ‘mainland.’
In reaction, mainland China’s policymakers expressed little concern for the possible implications of the defense guidelines for actual Japanese defense and security policies, instead stressing that Japan’s warnings about China’s military rise were misguided. The assertion that “China’s military development and the lack of transparency are matters of concern” was dismissed as “irresponsible” and “totally groundless” by the state-controlled China Daily. To be sure, China’s recent public announcement that it would speed up the development of an aircraft carrier fleet (to be deployed in the East China Sea) confirmed that Japan’s concerns might be anything but groundless and irresponsible, at least from the standpoint of Japan’s defense planners.
The defense guidelines will be accompanied by a re-structuring of Japan’s armed forces, including a very noteworthy upgrade of the country’s naval and coast guard capabilities. Until 2012, 21 new patrol ships and seven new reconnaissance jets will be added to the Japan Coast Guard fleet to be dispatched to where the (potential) ‘action’ is: the East China Sea.
In addition, Japan’s navy will increase the number of its AEGIS destroyers from four to six. AEGIS destroyers are equipped with antimissile systems and are at least in theory able to shoot down incoming North Korean Nodong missiles aimed at downtown Tokyo in less than 10 minutes. The number of Japanese submarines will also be increased from 16 to 22, while the number of tanks will be reduced from 600 to 400.
All of this, however, will take place in times of fiscal austerity: Over the next three to four years the defense budget will be decreased by five percent, raising doubts about the feasibility of parts of this envisioned military upgrade.
Weapons export ban remains in place – for now
Japan’s self-imposed ban to export weapons and weapons technology will remain in place, although it was widely anticipated in the second half of 2010 that the government would officially abolish the ban to enable the domestic defense industry to join international weapons’ development projects.
Since 1967, Japan has maintained a policy of refusing to export weapons or weapons technology, and until mid-December 2010, Tokyo had planned to lift that ban to allow Japanese defense contractors to export weapons and weapons technology that would be exclusively used in either UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions or missions combating international terrorism. In the framework of such missions, Japanese defense contractors envisioned joint projects with counterparts in Australia, South Korea, the US and Europe.
Days before the adoption of the defense guidelines, however, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan changed his mind due to domestic political considerations. The government’s current (People’s New Party (PNP) and former (Social Democratic Party, SDP) coalition partners are vehemently opposed to revising the export ban and threatened to block the government’s lawmaking initiatives if the prime minister decided to scrap it.
However, the new guidelines do not exclude the possibility of revisiting the decision: “Measures to follow the international trend of defense equipment will be studied”.
To be sure such an ambiguous approach stands for everything that is wrong with the government’s approach to defense and security issues, according to a Japanese scholar and security expert who wished not to be identified. “If the government wants to open new possibilities for Japanese companies to participate in international joint ventures, we should not avoid a clear political decision to change the principles themselves. It is time to stop deceiving the public and the opposition parties on defense”, he told ISN Insights. “The defense guidelines speak of exploring possibilities for more international joint ventures […] How can we do that without addressing the issue of the three principles?”
To be sure, Japan’s defense industry will continue to exert pressure on the government to abolish the ban and will continue to collaborate with US defense contractors in the context of developing a US-Japan missile defense system, a de-facto violation of the ban since the early 2000s.
… And not going nuclear either
While the July 2010 draft defense guidelines recommended the revision of at least one so-called ‘Non-Nuclear Principle’, namely the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan in the case of a military emergency, the final version makes no such mention.
There are three ‘Non-Nuclear Principles’, outlined in a late 1960s parliamentary resolution that states that Japan shall neither 1. possess nor 2. manufacture nuclear weapons nor shall it 3. permit their introduction into Japanese territory.
To be sure, Japan has over the decades officially allowed the violation of one of the ‘Non-Nuclear Principles.’ Since the late 1960s and throughout the Cold War, US Navy ships equipped with nuclear weapons visited Japanese ports, a fact officially acknowledged by a government-nominated Ministry of Foreign Affairs panel in March 2010.
And there are more blanks in the guidelines, at least as far as the country’s defense hawks are concerned: Neither constitutional revision nor the right to collective self-defense make it into the guidelines, i.e. the right to defend soldiers from other countries in the framework of international missions.
To be sure, both are ‘evergreen’ topics on Japan’s security policy agenda, and while there is wide agreement that constitutional revision – i.e. revising the constitution’s Article 9 in order to officially allow Japan to maintain armed forces (the reason why Japan’s soldiers are referred to as ‘Self-Defense Forces’) – will not make it anywhere near the top of the governing Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) policy agenda anytime soon, there is no practical need to change the government’s interpretation of collective self-defense.
Instead, Tokyo will continue to ‘stretch’ the definition of individual self-defense as it sees fit. The navy’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean (2001-2009), the army’s operation in Iraq (2004-2006) and the navy’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast were all missions of ‘individual’ and not ‘collective’ self-defense as far as Tokyo was concerned. Indeed, Tokyo has explained that it is defending Japanese national security and territory in the Indian Ocean, southern Iraq and now Somalia.
Collective self-defense through the back-door, so to speak.
Hawks knocking at the door?
The Japanese government on the other hand might exit through the front door soon, in view of Kan’s rapidly decreasing popularity with both the electorate and his own party insiders.
A possible frontrunner for the DPJ’s leadership and the prime minister post is the party’s current Secretary General Katsuya Okada, who has in the past presented himself much more assertively on defense and security issues, including temporary but official support to allow US warships to introduce nuclear weapons into Japan in the case of military emergency.
Kan’s job could be on the line very soon, possibly in a few weeks, should he not be able to get his coalition partners and parts of the political opposition to support budget bills for this fiscal year by the end of next month. At the center of the controversy – potentially leading to a snap general election in the weeks ahead – is Kan’s plan to increase Japan’s consumption tax.
Until then – and most probably long after – Japan will continue to muddle through or “lie”, as an official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells ISN Insights, selling its soldiers’ contributions to international missions as ‘individual self-defense’, come what may.
Professor Axel Berkofsky is Gianni Mazzocchi Fellow at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per Gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)