China threat propels a new defence thinking in Japan


By Shamshad A. Khan

Concerned with Chinese military assertions and increased surveillance around its southern islands, Japan has unveiled its will in its new National Defense Program Guidelines1 (NDPG) to fill the “defence vacuum” by deploying permanent troops to these “outlaying islands”. The approval of the new defence guidelines by the Japanese government comes at the backdrop of Japan and China’s diplomatic spat following Chinese fishing trawler’s collision with a Japanese coast guard’s patrolling vessel off the southern Senkaku Islands. The uninhibited Senkaku Islands are under effective administration of Japan since 1895, but its sovereignty is contested by its two other neigbours-Taiwan and China.

Japanese new defence thinking of deploying troops to secure its southern Islands reflects the fact that Japan gears itself to counter any assertion by China over its territory and therefore the guideline has identified Nansei Islands, Ishigaki Islands and Yonaguni Islands – all in the geographical proximity of China and Taiwan – where it would double the presence of its Self Defense Force (SDF) and will also reinforce the presence of the Air and the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Japan is also considering deploying troops to the west of Okinawa’s Miyako Island an area the defence ministry recently described as a “defence vacuum” or “defence void” as no SDF units are permanently deployed there. “With the anticipated participation of more SDF troops in the area, Japan hopes to keep tabs on China, which has continued to increase naval activities in waters surrounding Japan,” a Japanese newspaper quoted an unnamed source in Japanese defence ministry as saying.

For the first time in its defence planning, Japan has introduced the concept of “dynamic defence capability” which emphasises on mobility of its defence troops to secure its outlaying islands from an invasion rather than uniform deployment of troops on Japanese archipelago. As part of this concept, Japan will reduce deployment of its troops from its northern Island Hokkaido and move these troops to southern islands, identified in the new defence guidelines. Japan had deployed heavy troops on northern Hokkaido Island (closer to present Russia) during the Cold War amid the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. Considered from this aspect, it is a major shift in Japan’s Cold War security policy as China has officially replaced Soviet Union as a major threat to country’s security.

China is becoming prime security concern for Japanese security planners, also stems from the fact that the Japanese administration took the bold step of an envisioned downsizing its troop from northern Hokkaido Island despite Russia’s renewed assertion over the Northern Island chains – a disputed territory between Russia and Japan under Russian effective administration since the end of the World War II off Hokkaido. Last month Russian President Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island (one of the four disputed Islands). He was the first ever Russian leader who stepped on the island, ignoring the Japanese warning. Though Russia had aborted similar efforts of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s bid to land on the disputed territory. This month Russian first Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov visited the disputed island which further irked Tokyo and the diplomatic standoff between the two neighbouring countries continues. Therefore the Japanese strategic planners’ southern shift amidst Russian assertion over its northern territory suggests the fact that Japanese are taking Chinese assertion more seriously than the Russian one. And certainly they are considering their southern islands more vulnerable than the northern one.

The new defence guidelines which is Japan’s fourth defence guidelines since 1976, has raised concerns over Chinese navy’s increased presence and surveillance in its water around Japan. The new NDPG has described Chinese activities a “matter of concern for the regional and international security.” This is also considered a departure in Japanese defence thinking vis-a-vis China as previous guidelines has merely stressed the “need to focus on the trends of China in future.” As regards North Korea it says that the reclusive state’s “military movements are a major element of instability.”

How to meet the challenges of rising Chinese threat amid 1% GDP cap on its defence spending put in place by the Japanese Diet since 1976 and the recession hit economy has been biggest puzzle for Japanese strategic planners. To achieve the task of improving mobility in order to deploy SDF to Nansei Island, Japan needs more vessel and high speed aircraft carriers. So in order not to exceed the defence spending from the present level, the Japanese defence planners have envisioned a cut in its SDF personnel as well as fighter tanks. An appendix in the present guidelines shows that Japan will downsize its troops by 1,000 personnel. With that the total number of the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force (GSDF) will come down to 154,000 the lowest ever maintained by Japan. Under the first Defence guidelines in 1976 Japan had maintained 180,000 GSDF troops. So the Japanese defence trend suggests that it is the GSDF which faces the axe to meet the challenge of maintaining 1% GDP cap on defence spending. The appendix in the NDPG also shows that Japan will reduce the number of fighterr tanks used by its GSDF from about nearly 600 to 390 over the next few years. But to achieve the target of mobility, the Guideline foresees increasing the number of submarines in its naval fleet from the current 16 to 22. Japanese defence planners have added appendix for the first time in its new NDPG showing its defence strength and requirement of future procurement in order to bring transparency in its defence policy. The move is yet again targeted against China from which Japan has been demanding to bring transparency on its defence spending.

But too much China centric defence planning is also likely to cause alarm and suspicion and could give China an excuse to expand its military including the naval capability. Sensing the possibility the Asahi Shimbun has cautioned the Japanese government from going too close to China. In one of its editorial the daily has questioned Japanese new defence policy asking that “it may be necessary to prepare for contingencies, but isn’t it wiser to enhance readiness to enable vessels and aircraft to be deployed from a distance? Showing off armor alone does not serve as a deterrent.” A week before endorsement of the new defence guidelines, the daily has suggested the Japanese and the Chinese governments to “create a mechanism for communications and establish rules for avoiding dangerous situations.”2

A harsh reaction was expected from China on the adoption of China centric defence planning by Tokyo. China was quick to react to the endorsement of new defence guidelines and slammed Japanese view as “irresponsible”. Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Jiang Yu commenting on Japanese defence guidelines said that “individual countries have no right to represent the international community and make irresponsible remarks on China’s development.”3

However, in a bid to calm the international and domestic reaction, the Japanese Prime Minister after the adoption of the guidelines said that “Challenges and uncertainties to Japan’s national security are becoming more complex and multilayered… we need to shift our defence policy to deal such situations.”

The Japanese Cabinets decision to approve the defence guidelines, which was due for an year since the previous guidelines expired in December 2009, comes at the backdrop of operation “Keen Sword” jointly conducted by the US and Japanese troops aimed at achieving twin task of checking North Korea’s military provocations and China’s assertion in East China Sea. In the past, such moves were fiercely opposed by Japanese pacifist groups which saw these steps as moving back to prewar militarism. The same was expected this time around. But the DPJ government, it seems, waited for an opportune time to avert public opposition towards its defence policies. Since these decisions coincide with the volatile security situation in the region following North Korean shelling on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong incident, the Japanese government has been able to avert a possible protest by opposition parties as well as the peace groups. The DPJ government this time has been able to drive the point to its public of a Korea and China threat, who in the past had not bought these arguments.

1. The NDPG lays out Japan’s basic policies on its defence strength. The current NDPG will guide Japan’s defence policy for next 10 years.
2. “Island Security” (editorial), The Asahi Shimbun, December 10, 2010.
3. Tokyo ‘irresponsible’, Kyodo/ The Japan Times, December 18, 2010.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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