A perfect storm for security policy change?

The great puzzle in Japanese security policy is why despite the consensus within the LDP in favor of a more robust, independent security and persistent worries about North Korea and China among the public at large Japan has failed to spend more — or the same — on defense and made legal and doctrinal changes that would enable Japan to meet threats originating from its neighbors.

Will 2009 be a turning point at which Japan opts for a new security policy?

The response to North Korea’s rocket launch has been revealing. As I have already discussed, LDP conservatives have responded to the launch by dusting off old proposals and pushing for them with renewed vigor. Abe Shinzo is back in the spotlight. The conservatives, marginalized when public discussion focused solely on the dismal state of the Japanese economy, have been experiencing a bit of a surge going into the Golden Week holiday.

Prime Minister Aso Taro is revisiting plans from the Abe administration to revise the constitutional interpretation prohibiting the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. On Thursday, Aso met with Yanai Shunji, who headed a private advisory group under Abe to consider the question of collective self-defense, to revisit the question in light of recent events. Aso has previously expressed his desire to tackle collective self-defense, but it appears that North Korea may have given him the opportunity to move forward with it.

He will have plenty of help from his conservative allies. On Saturday, Abe spoke in Aichi prefecture, where he stressed the importance of collective self-defense and called for including reinterpretation of the prohibition in the LDP’s election manifesto this year. As is the standard line when talking about collective self-defense, Abe stressed that if Japan is unable to engage in collective self-defense, the alliance will be finished the moment North Korea fires a missile in the direction of the United States.

Of course, it is still an open question whether Japan would be able to shoot down a missile. And in the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will push for cuts in research into boost-phase intercept technology, in part because, as Nathan Hodge notes at Danger Room, Gates believes that midcourse and terminal phase missile defense systems are sound. In other words, at the same time that Gates has shrugged off the North Korean missile threat, Japanese conservatives are using the supposed threat to the US and the US-Japan alliance posed by North Korean missiles to move their agenda.

Meanwhile, other conservatives are using the US response to argue that instead of collective self-defense, Japan should be more focused on acquiring the capabilities necessary to defend itself. A recent Sakurai Yoshiko article from Shukan Daiyamondo, reprinted at her website, is a classic of the genre. Sakurai looks at Gates’s nonchalance towards the North Korean launch as a signal to Japan that it is on its own. Therefore, “For defense procurement, Japan has until now consistently cut its defense budget by two percent a year. This must stop. We should quickly change course and increase the defense budget.” This is a been a consistent theme in her writing, especially of late. Another article, this one in Shukan Shincho, covers much of the same ground but focuses more on how the US is moving closer to China and, by shifting its defense priorities (i.e., by cutting orders of the F-22), will leave Japan vulnerable to China’s new model fighter jets. Japan, she argues, is in a tough spot as it picks a new fighter for the ASDF, this despite Japan’s having no option to buy the F-22 in the first place — Japan would be in a tough spot regardless of US budgetary decisions. (Sakurai actually backs away from the argument that the US is somehow weaker militarily and focuses on the dangers of Obama’s naivete.) Yet another article by Sakurai, this one in the current Shukan Daiyamondo, picks up where her Shincho article left off, castigating the Obama administration for its “unrealistic” China policy and complaining about nuclear disarmament and the F-22 cuts.

(Yes, the conservatives are obsessed with the F-22. This article by Noguchi Hiroyuki, a defense reporter for the Sankei Shimbun, lavishes praise on the F-22 in a manner surely unmatched by all but the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin. Noguchi’s article contains many of the same complaints as Sakurai’s articles, in particular complaints about the threat posed to Japan by the US government’s love for China. Noguchi’s article is also of note because he chides Gates for talking about the F-22 as a cold war program; the cold war in Asia, he says, never ended. Which is precisely how Japan’s conservatives see Asia, despite economic interdependence with China that dwarfs anything seen during the cold war.)

This is all fairly typical coming from these sources. The difference is that now these calls for a more robust, autonomous Japanese security posture dovetail nicely with the push within the LDP, which in turn has benefited from the emergency drill conducted courtesy of North Korea earlier this month. We are seeing a concerted push by Japan’s conservatives to make the case for bigger defense budgets, and, in the case of some of them, greater autonomy from the US. Surely China’s fleet review this week will provide more grist for their mill, not unlike the current debate over defense policy in Australia.

The DPJ, it seems, does not want to be left behind in this discussion, and so Asao Keiichiro, the defense minister in the DPJ’s next cabinet, on Saturday called for conventional capabilities that would enable Japan to strike North Korean launchers preemptively. (Full disclosure: I previously worked in Asao’s office.)

I have no problem with Japan’s having this discussion — at this point any discussion about security policy is meaningful. But there are a number of questions that none of Japan’s jingoes have answered. For example, to Asao, Abe, Yamamoto Ichita, and the others who have used North Korea’s launch to call for preemptive strike capabilities, what specifically do you envision for this role? And, as Jun Okumura asks, can Japan actually find and hit North Korea’s mobile launchers? Have you at least considered the consequences of an independent preemptive strike capability for the alliance? By how much should the defense budget be increased? The Japanese people deserve to hear their answers to these questions. It’s an election year, after all. It’s also the year of the drafting of the latest National Defense Program Outline, which this debate will surely impact.

But I wish the debate wasn’t so one-sided. I do wish there was someone willing to argue against the idea that East Asia is in the midst of a new cold war with China, with North Korea’s being a sideshow to the main event. I wish there was someone of sufficient stature willing to flood the Japanese media space like Sakurai, except with nuanced arguments about the nature of the East Asian security environment and the “co-opetive” relationship most countries in the region have with China.

Nevertheless, I hope Japan has this discussion, and I hope that public pays attention to it. I’m skeptical that it will produce dramatic changes — there is that whole economic crisis after all — but the conservatives now enjoy the most favorable conditions in which to advance their arguments that they’ve enjoyed in years.

5 thoughts on “A perfect storm for security policy change?

  1. Interesting assessment, but I think it relies too much on sankei for its argument.Toward the end, you mention how the economy will get top mention to which I whole-heartedly agree. Barring a strike on Japanese soil, it would take a few more missile launches to really concern the Japanese public. This is again, the 3rd failed missile launch since the end of the cold war, and despite nuclear testing, the budget is decreasing.Second, as a Japanese friend of mine once said to me, the people like the SDF, they don\’t mind them being sent on peacekeeping missions, but they hate fighting. If you look at the April 3 Yomiuri Shinbun kenpo kaizen yoron chosa, when they break up the different parts of Article 9 and ask if there is a need to change it, \”Renunciation of War\”, senso hoki, has over 77% saying \”no need.\” (By the way, can you access the newspaper archives over at MIT?)There has always been tension surrounding Article 9 with those such as Kishi, Nakasone, Koizumi, Abe, and now Aso that have been trying to create a strong, \”normal\” Japan (slightly different from Ozawa\’s concept of \”normal\”) and the majority that has wanted to restrain the former\’s attempts to do so. This time around is no different.Still, as the polls show when you break them down by age, the younger generation that has never experienced war is a little more lax. If change comes, depending on the circumstances, I see it more as formally institutionalizing the reinterpretations already made with room in the language for more reinterpretation. All amendments need to be passed in a referendum per Article 96 of the Constitution, and something would really have to change public opinion to get the necessary votes for more.


  2. I didn\’t quite make my doubts about their ability to break through clear enough: I don\’t think they will, not yet anyway.But the slight turn in Aso\’s fortunes and North Korea\’s actions have created the space for the conservatives to push hard for their agenda with help from senior levels. It\’s hard to imagine them getting the same hearing now if Aso\’s numbers were still on the edge of the single digits.As for the obstacles, I don\’t think this is a matter of the constitution, at least not in anything but a symbolic sense. It is not the constitution that stands in the way of spending more on defense or of adopting a preemptive strike doctrine. Preemptive defense was recognized as constitutional back in the 1950s. At this point it is money, and whether the public is willing to spend more to back up the rhetoric (and I clearly don\’t think it will – http://www.observingjapan.com/2009/03/butter-over-guns.html).The odd thing is how rarely I\’ve seen someone call directly for more defense spending. It\’s one thing to talk about new capabilities, but it is rare (at least as far as I\’ve seen) for politicians to demand more for defense.


  3. Anonymous

    I do wish there was someone willing to argue against the idea that East Asia is in the midst of a new cold war with China, with North Korea\’s being a sideshow to the main event.Some in Australia wish the same for the Australian defence policy debate…


  4. Anonymous

    As you know, Nakagawa Shoichi has claimed that it is proper for Japan to pit its own nuclear weapons against the nuclear weapons under development by N Korea. The question comes down to whether nuclear weapons can in any sense be considered to play a \”defensive\” role in national security. This goes back to the doctrine of \”mutual assured destruction\” or MAD, that was first put forward during the Eisenhower presidency and expanded without limit during and after the McNamara-Kennedy-Johnson missile gap era. Japan has claimed in the past that the SDF is not a violation of the constitution because it is strictly defensive in nature. Because of the impending revival of the nuclear question under the Abe-Aso-Nakagawa axis, I think it is important to reconsider whether the MAD doctrine can be applicable in the case of Japan and NK. Nakagawa claims that Japan can have nuclear weapons without violating the constitution and so far no one that I know of in Japan has challeged him on this.


  5. Tobias,Can you provide details for this comment: \”Preemptive defense was recognized as constitutional back in the 1950s\”?Are you referring to how Japan decided in the 1950s that it was able to defend itself in line with the UN Charter, specifically Article 51; hence the creation of the SDF in 1954 and so on?I have trouble with that statement because preemptive defense implies that Japan is able to strike first. As Samuels\’ 2008 article on the JPG discusses, the power to fire on fushinsen has only recently been allowed.I guess though that if North Korea creates an armada and points it toward Japan, Japan would be able to perform \”preemptive defense.\” However, in the more likely case of nuclear weapons in North Korea, I don\’t think international law has a firm answer on what is appropriate or not as far as \”preemptive defense,\” let alone policy within Japan. Your answer bugged me back when I read it the first time, but I\’ve been wrapped up like you in work.


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