Search within the section

22 November 2010

Japanese Defense Policy – Stepping It Up or Status Quo?

Japanese destroyers/larsz/flickr
Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic

Japanese destroyers

Onlookers are pondering whether a December review of Japan’s defense and security policy will result in a ‘big bang’ of change or business as usual.

By Axel Berkofsky for ISN

Whether change is on the horizon for Japan's defense and security policy will become clearer in December, when the Japanese government led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan publishes "Japan's Basic Defense Program for Fiscal 2011 to 2015".

A preview of potential change emerged first in July and then again in October this year. In July, a government-nominated advisory council – a group of prominent private sector entrepreneurs charged with the task of advising the prime minister on defense and security policies – published a draft report that raised quite a few eyebrows among analysts and Japan’s typically wary neighbors. Commissioned in support of the December review, the report recommended not only an upgrade for Japan’s navy, coast guard and ballistic missile capabilities to deal with potential threats from North Korea and China, but also a review of Japan’s ‘three non-nuclear principles,’ which forbids the country from introducing, stockpiling and manufacturing nuclear weapons inside its borders.

The three principles are ensconced in a parliamentary resolution (which was never adopted into law) introduced by former Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in a 1967 speech to parliament in the context of US-Japan negotiations over the return of Okinawa to Japan.

Scrapping the three principles (eventually adopted by the Japanese parliament in 1971) is not in the cards for December, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official told ISN Insights. "Reviewing any non-nuclear principles will remain a taboo in December and long after that," he insisted.

Acknowledging the truth

However, Robert Dujarric, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS) at Temple University in Tokyo, is not so sure. At least one of the non-nuclear principles could become a casualty of the December review, he projected:

The non-introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan was violated from day one, when the US introduced nukes into Japanese waters and probably air bases during the Cold War. As long as the US has nukes, Japan isn’t going to ban [them], and my understanding is that [the Japanese government is] talking about bringing the principles in line with reality after the official discovery of documents proving that [it] had allowed the US to introduce nuclear weapons into Japan.

Dujarric is referencing the government-commissioned Foreign Ministry panel that, in March this year, examined formerly classified government documents and alleged to have uncovered what was known but denied for decades: In the 1960s, Washington and Tokyo adopted three secret agreements: allowing US naval vessels to carry nuclear weapons into Japanese ports; permitting the US military to use bases in Japan without prior consultation in the case of a Korean Peninsula contingency; and letting US nuclear weapons into Okinawa in times of "emergency".

Making legal (at least in principle) what was done illegally over decades would probably ruffle some political feathers in Tokyo and render some policymakers temporarily speechless. 

Then again, explaining to the public why Japan was "obliged" (as explained before) to agree to such US military objectives during the Cold War is arguably not more difficult than putting the Japanese constitution’s ‘pacifist’ Article 9  (which denies the country the right to have armed forces) up against the reality of a state-of-the art armed forces buttressed by an annual budget of $50 billion.

In October, the issue of reviewing – and indeed abolishing – Japan’s decades-old ban on exporting weapons and weapon technologies (already suggested in the July advisory council report) reappeared in the headlines.  During a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Hanoi that month, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that the government "may move towards the lifting of the ban to sell weapons."

Adopted in the 1960s, the ban prohibited weapons exports to communist states, countries to which the United Nations bans such exports and parties to international conflicts.  Over the decades, however, it came to be widely interpreted as banning the Japanese defense industry from exporting arms and technologies to all countries.

While Gates called it a very "forward-looking proposal", Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku felt obliged to set the official record straight by saying that Kitazawa’s remarks on the weapons export ban are ahead of its time, albeit (possibly) only slightly.

While saying that "At this stage, the Kan Cabinet hasn’t decided to review the three principles," he added that "The principles were established based on the fundamental principle of Japan as a pacifist nation. The discussion from now will be whether there is a need to review those principles to match the 21st century."

It is business over principles for the defense minister, a Japanese scholar affiliated with a think tank close to the government told ISN Insights. On Kitazawa’s proposal to let Japan’s defense industry generate extra revenue on the global arms market, he says, "Kitazawa has always been keen to help Japan’s defense industry to remain profitable and gain access to the global market, not only to sell equipment but also to take part in research and development on a global level."

To be sure, the self-imposed ban was violated several times in the recent past. Under strong pressure from Japanese business lobbies and associations, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, et al., were granted government permission to cooperate with US defense companies selling components for the maritime part of the US-Japanese missile defense system in 2004.

In 2006 the Japanese government itself became active on the regional arms market, selling three coast guard fast patrol vessels to Indonesia and the Philippines in support of their respective anti-terrorism campaigns. In order to avoid accusations that it was violating its self-imposed restriction to export weapons, Tokyo referred to the sales as "development aid." 

Boosting its military – just in case
Just this October, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced an increase in the navy’s submarine fleet from 16 to 22 as part of the December review. According to the ministry, Japan’s decision to boost its submarine fleet was triggered by the rapid modernization and increase of China’s submarine fleet. Currently, the Chinese navy is estimated to have 60 submarines and has reportedly completed the construction of an underground submarine base on Hainan Island to accommodate a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

There is likely to be little if any public or political resistance to the plans to upgrade Japan’s navy and coast guard capabilities in December, especially in view of recently stepped-up Sino-Japanese territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Furthermore, recently leaked YouTube video footage that clearly shows a Chinese trawler intentionally ramming into a Japanese Coast Guard ship close to disputed East China Sea territories in September will reinforce the notion that these upgrades are justified and necessary in the eyes of both policymakers and the public.
Japan’s defense establishment has relatively ambitious plans for the country’s military and defense policies and for equipping the armed forces. While some will become reality in December, others, such as equipping the armed forces with offensive ballistic missiles to attack North Korea preemptively and scrapping the country’s ‘non-nuclear principles,’ will not.
Either way, China, North and possibly South Korea will probably – and as usual – fear a return of Japanese World War II militarism after December. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the saying that "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" still applies in Asia’s fragile security environment. In a region where China continues to rapidly modernize its armed forces, and North Korea's missile and nuclear programs remain at the top of regional security concerns, Japan is responding in kind – just in case. 

Axel Berkofsky is Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).


Logo International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
License Logo

Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported