The race for defense ministry reform

Back in February, when Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru was threatened with censure for his ministry’s dilatory response to the Atago incident, Prime Minister Fukuda gave Mr. Ishiba a firm vote of confidence, calling upon the defense minister to “review the organization from its very foundation.”

It appears that Mr. Fukuda’s support for comprehensive defense ministry reform has lapsed.

Mr. Ishiba is still eager, of course. Earlier this week he appeared on TV to argue for a thorough reform that mixes civilians and JSDF personnel in the ministry to strengthen communication among them.

But now Mr. Ishiba faces competition from two different directions. From one side is the defense ministry reform subcommittee of the LDP – PARC’s national security investigatory committee. Chaired by former JDA chief Nakatani Gen and staffed largely by boei zoku, the subcommittee issued its recommendations on Thursday.

The subcommittee report is less far-reaching than that envisioned by Mr. Ishiba. The word of choice seems to be “strengthening,” especially the prime minister’s office. The subcommittee revives Abe Shinzo’s project of creating a Japanese National Security Council, and calls for naming a defense ministry/JSDF member as prime ministerial secretaries and military aides. (It also calls for a new adviser to the defense minister, who would could be a civilian from outside the ministry.) Instead of merging uniformed and civilian personnel, the subcommittee draws clearer lines between the two. It calls for shutting down the ministry’s operations planning bureau and moving its functions to the Joint Staff Office (JSO), while strengthening the ministry’s responsibilities for strategy and policy. It also calls for changing rules to allow JSDF personnel to testify to the Diet on specific military questions and for measures to improve morale in both the ministry and the JSDF.

This may be an improvement on Mr. Ishiba’s plans. It seems to me that blurring the lines between civilians and uniformed personnel undermines civilian control of the military.

However, Mr. Ishiba also faces competition from the Kantei, which has announced the creation of a reform council of its own that will be more focused on tackling the air of corruption at the ministry.

The current political situation may result in the Kantei’s winning the race to defense ministry reform with a more limited plan that does less to shake up the ministry (which will necessarily invite opposition from uniformed and civilian personnel).

But what outcome is the best for Japan? I do not share Michael Penn‘s bleak assessment of the consequences of various ministry reform proposals. (Unfortunately I have no link to Mr. Penn’s latest newsletter in which he discusses the Nakatani proposal.) His argument is that the response of JSDF personnel to Judge Aoyama Kunio’s statement on the ASDF Iraq mission, in addition to reported JSDF involvement in spying on antiwar groups, should raise red flags about the nature of the JSDF — and as a result the mooted reforms should be rejected. He wrote:

Come now! Criminalizing the act of handing out antiwar fliers to SDF families? Spying on peace groups? Growing links to international role models like the Pakistani military? Mocking civilian judges? A direct pipeline to the prime minister? Active units under the direct command of the Chief of Staff?

Is this really a good start for Japan’s new Ministry of Defense? Where are the effective countervailing political forces here? What about the lessons of Japanese history in the 20th century? If unchecked now, where does this kind of thing lead in the future?

I think alarms about the JSDF are overwrought. Without denying the troubling involvement of the GSDF in domestic espionage against peace groups, which was revealed in June 2007 but has since vanished from the media, the Japanese defense establishment does need reform. It needs a clearer chain of command, swifter information collection and processing, and better decision-making in response to crises. (And beyond this, it needs a more transparent procurement process.)

That said, I share Mr. Penn’s concern about the lack of “countervailing political forces.” As far as I’m concerned, any defense ministry reform that does not include provisions for the creation of an inspector general’s office and more robust Diet oversight is insufficient. The DPJ should be taking this position in the reform debate, agreeing that the ministry needs reform but insisting that reform must be matched by better oversight. The creation of a more effective defense establishment must be accompanied by the creation of stronger institutional checks to monitor its activities.

One thought on “The race for defense ministry reform

  1. Anonymous

    Most needed is a court martial system which Japan does not have. The first Army attache to the US is still in uniform and handling gainjin even after he severely beat and broke bones of a subordinate.Joa


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