IPCS Special Commentary

Japan: First-strike Option and the Defense Policy Revision

13 Aug, 2013    ·   4087

Rajaram Panda on the projected revamp of Japan's defence policy vis-a-vis the country's regional agenda

Rajaram Panda
Rajaram Panda
Visiting Faculty, SLLCS, JNU
Since his assumption to office as Prime Minister of Japan in December 2012 following his landslide victory to the Lower House elections, Abe Shinzo, has chosen a course through his Abenomics to restore Japan’s economic health as well as revamping Japanese society and its standing among nations. Of the three arrows of Abenomics, the first two – aggressive fiscal and monetary stimuli - have been successfully implemented and led to a turnaround to the country’s economy. The yen has been depreciated, thereby boosting exports, and the stock market has witnessed a surge in line with the government’s objectives. Now Abe faces the biggest challenge in implementing the third arrow – structural reforms – which will take longer and difficult to implement. The victory in the Upper House elections in July 2013, giving the LDP-New Komeito coalition control over both the houses will help Abe to implement his bold measures to resuscitate the ailing economy and rescue Japan from over two decades-malaise of stagflation and recession. For the present, economy will remain Abe’s top priority.

Abe's Resolve
This is the rosy part of Abe-II administration. But true to his “Japan is back!” declaration in the widely publicized speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the US in February 2013, Abe has not lost sight of his vision for a strong national defense for Japan (kuni no mamori). This led to the increase in the defense budget – the first in a decade - which led to the speculation that a sustained economic recovery could drive further, more dramatic increase in spending. It is premature to jump to any conclusion whether that will actually take place. Though this is first increase in Japan’s defense budget in a decade, the size of the gain was tiny compared with China’s growth in military spending but meant success for Abe in that he nudged Japan even farther toward a more robust military.  
The deteriorating strategic environment in the neighborhood creates an uncomfortable situation for Japan. China’s military modernization program and its relentless resolve to extend its strategic reach much beyond its shore send shivers across Asian capitals. Added to this, with North Korea’s enhanced missile technology program and nuclear weapons program remaining unstoppable, a fragile peace exists in the Northeast Asian region, creating the prospect of a domino effect both in Japan and South Korea and spawning a debate if exercising nuclear option is a viable alternative. 

Ability to Strike Enemy Bases
While exercising the nuclear option may not be that easy in Japan and South Korea in the near term, acquiring the ability to strike at enemy missile sites could be a priority, according to an interim report released in Japan on 26 July 2013 for revising the country’s long-term defense policy. The mid-term report, compiled by the Defense Ministry, calls for “the need for enhancing comprehensive abilities” to counter ballistic missile attacks. Although the report does not use the term “strike capability”, discussions on acquiring this option are included.

The disputes over the control over Senkaku islands has strained Japan-China relations with China continuously threatening Japan that it is China’s “core interest” to protect them by all means. Chinese fishing boats and ships straying into Japanese water are common incident in recent times, the latest being in early August 2013. In view of this, Japan is considering to develop amphibious force like the American-made Global Hawk with the ability to protect the country’s remote islands, which number 6,800, even when China’s threat to Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea continues. Though Taiwan too makes similar claims to the islets, China does not make similar noise as with Japan. The mid-term report also called for Japan to consider the purchase of tilt-rotor aircraft like the US military’s controversial MV-22 Osprey as part of an established plan to build an amphibious infantry unit similar to the Marines that could defend outlying islands as it can take off and land like a helicopter but can cruise like a fixed-wing airplane.

The mid-term report could be the base on which the LDP-New Komeito coalition government will finalize and release the new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) by the end of 2013. It may be recalled when the new Defense White Paper 2013 was released in July 2013, China got the maximum coverage, thus transpiring that Japan is really worried about China’s intentions. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera categorically announced Japan’s intentions by declaring that there is no change in the country’s basic stance on defense-only policy and that if Japan faces various threats, it would remain prepared to prevent an attack by using the country’s available defense capabilities. This does not mean to suggest that Japan will launch pre-emptive strikes as these are banned under the Constitution. What the Abe government wants is to acquire the ability to strike in self-defense to deter the enemy. 

The caution reflects the challenge Abe faces as even when he seeks to raise Japan’s military profile in the region, he cannot remain oblivious of the memories of Japan’s wartime aggression that remains raw even today. With this concern in mind, he tried to cast Japan as a reliable partner that can help offset the growing influence of China during his visits to Southeast Asian nations in early 2013.     

Successive governments are aware that revising the Constitution by amending Article 9 is a complicated process and is not achievable so soon. Therefore, the available choice is to interpret in such a way that it serves the objectives without really amending the Constitution. The argument, therefore, is that the Constitution allows the government to take a decision to strike enemy bases in self-defense if there are no other means available to protect the nation.    

Since Japan is a nation of 6,800 islands, the Abe administration is considering bolstering special Ground Self-Defense Force unit trained for defending islands as a base to create a marine-style force. The special force, some 700 to 800 service members, is currently based at Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture. The government is also planning to purchase unmanned surveillance aircraft to address the growing East Asia security concerns and to enhance its disaster response abilities, as well as to strengthen cooperation with the US and the private sector to counter cyber attacks. The current NDPG was drafted in 2010 by then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan and given the increasingly strained security environment, the Abe government is doing a rethink.     

What does it mean in concrete terms for Japan’s defense and the region? If Japan goes for active military presence in the region by acquisition of offensive weapons and surveillance drones, it will demonstrate to the world that it is drifting the nation father than ever from its postwar pacifism. While active military presence is aimed at countering the growing military capabilities of China and North Korea, the drones would be used to monitor Japan’s territorial waters, presumably including the area around the islands. Abe’s defense policy is aimed at reversing the long decline of Japan, which was Asia’s dominant local power during much of the last century but now threatened of being eclipsed by China. The ultimate goal is to change Japan’s anti-war Constitution, imposed by the US after World War II, allowing its forces to become a full-fledged military.    

Another notable change in response to growing public acceptance of the Japanese military is the suggestion for creating a single, unified command of Japan’s army, the Ground Self Defense Forces, to improve its coordination and efficiency. This would reverse a decision made after Japan’s postwar armed forces were created in 1954 to break the ground forces into smaller regional commands so that they remain too weak and divided and so unable to hijack the civilian government, as the Imperial Army did during World War II.     

The mid-term report also called for increasing Japan’s military presence in Southeast Asia by helping those nations to build their own defense capabilities to respond to possible Chinese provocations. The report also called for closer military cooperation with Australia and South Korea, two former targets of Japan’s early-20th century aggression. The report also called for Japan’s ability to help Japanese citizens during terrorism or hostage crisis like the one in Algeria in early 2013, in which 10 Japanese gas plant workers were killed.   

Reactions from the US
The US expressed concern about Japan’s desire to acquire the ability to attack enemy bases in an overhaul of its defense policies pursued by Abe. The US is more concerned about the possible negative fallout on neighboring countries if Abe embarks on such a policy shift. As the security guarantor for its allies, the US urged the Abe administration not to further worsen relations with China and South Korea that have been plagued by territorial rows.

Moreover, the shadow of the past does not dissipate: Yasukuni Shrine, Comfort Women and the textbook revision issues remain alive even today. At the working-level talks on 25 July, when Japanese officials briefed their American counterparts on the interim report, the US sought further explanation on what countries and measures Japan is specifically considering while seeking to acquire the ability to strike enemy targets. 

Notwithstanding the US cautioning Japan to do a rethink on its security strategy and urging to obtain understanding of the policy from neighboring countries, it transpired that there are differences in some quarters inside Japan on the issue of what it means self-defense. As per the interim report, if Japan invokes the option of attacking enemy bases by possibly using US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles, there will be difficulty in clarifying what would be considered as self-defense. The Defense Ministry will find it tough to decide on that. The move also draws sharp reaction from China because acquiring amphibious warfare capability could be seen as preparations for a contingency on the Senkaku Islands.   

If Abe achieves his objectives of active military presence in the region and starts taking measures to change the Constitution, it would mean a fundamental shift in the country’s defense and security policies. As noted, any such measures would mean obtaining parliamentary approval – to be approved by two-third majority in both the Houses as stipulated in Article 96 of the Constitution – and put to a national referendum. However, plan to acquire offensive weapons, like a cruise missile, would be an important symbolic step away from the current Constitution’s limitations. In other words, this would mean a fundamental change in Japan’s defense philosophy and an important step for Abe towards normalizing Japan and its military.  

The much-talked hawkish nature of Abe’s approach overlooks the fact that it was the DPJ government three years ago first changed the defense report entailing a broader shift in military strategy, which ended Japan’s cold-war-era focus on fending off a Russian invasion from the north in favour of developing a more dynamic air-sea capability to defend its far flung islands to the south. Even before this, Japan was already strengthening its ability to respond to threats from North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear programs and to China’s growing assertiveness. This is in tune with Japan’s policy of strengthening alliance relationship with the US which has remained as a centerpiece of Japan’s defense strategy and by increasing military capabilities to share more of the security burden than the US now bears in the region.   
Has Abe been able to connect with the people for getting their approval of his plan of having a robust military? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Japan has succeeded to strike a chord among the public that feels uneasy with China’s emergence as a challenger to the long-held military dominance of the US in Asia. Seen from this perspective, his call to build up Japan’s own ability to defend itself sells well in Japan even when the US faces deep budget cuts. Onodera admitted that the feelings of the Japanese people over the past few years about the national security environment, the Ministry of Defense and the Self Defense Forces have changed and the government is only crafting a national defense and security policy as per the national mood.