Koikie out
Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

Koike versus the "soft liners"

On Tuesday, Yuriko Koike, former defense minister and aspirant to the LDP presidency, announced her resignation as chair of the LDP's special committee on base countermeasures.

She told the media that her resignation was intended as a protest against the decision to soften the language on preemption in the LDP Policy Research Council's defense division in the recommendations for this year's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) sent to Prime Minister Tarō Asō this month. She sees the longstanding doctrine of "nonaggressive defense" as injurious to the national defense, unacceptably tying the government's hands in addressing threats to Japanese national security.

Koike has a point: if Japan is to acquire the capabilities to strike at "enemy bases," it might as well be straightforward about the circumstances in which it intends to use said capabilities. What is the deterrent value, after all, of capabilities that Japan may or may not use if faced with an imminent missile launch?

This feud may be indicative of what I thought the response to the remarks (mentioned here ) by Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, would be among LDP members. While it is unclear at what point the language was softened to rule out preemptive strikes even while calling for capabilities to strike enemy bases, Ambassador Cui's remarks surely reinforced concerns by LDP members like Taku Yamasaki that Japan must be careful about sending the wrong signals abroad — while reinforcing the resolve of hawks like Koike who unabashedly want Japan to be ready and able to carry out preemptive strikes.

Naturally there is also the question of Koike hopes to achieve by resigning her post in this fashion. She has reinserted herself into the discussion of a hot-button issue just as the Asō government has entered into what might be its endgame. She has taken a hardline position on an issue of prime importance to Asō's conservative backers, perhaps in hope of prying their support away should the prime minister be forced out before an election. Of course, I am not questioning the sincerity of her beliefs — just the timing and form of her protest.

It's a small step, but it could be an important one. If Asō does not survive long enough to lead the LDP into the general election, the conservatives might reason that backing Koike is a way to ensure that their approach to North Korea and national security generally enjoy top priority in the LDP's election campaign — while allowing Koike to take the fall should the LDP lose disastrously in the general election. (Of course, I remain skeptical that the prime minister's critics will be able to force him out before a general election.)

Meanwhile, I am curious about the political salience of the debate over preemption in the LDP. Curiously, I have yet to see a single poll that asked respondents for their opinion on the idea of preemptive strikes and the acquisition of capabilities in order to carry out attacks on North Korean bases. I suspect that there's little interest in the issue as a priority, especially if respondents were informed that acquiring new capabilities would entail greater defense spending, but I am keen to see some data on this question. If a poll has asked this question and I've missed it, do send it my way. Otherwise, the question remains: why no polling on preemption?

There is another question in the preemption debate that advocates like Koike have not addressed forthrightly. Can Japan actually preempt a possible North Korean attack? Jiji calls attention to a recent report by the International Crisis Group that suggests that North Korea has an estimated 320 Rodong intermediate range ballistic missiles on mobile launchers directed at Japan, exceeding the previous estimate of 200. Would Japan be able to find these missiles, let alone destroy them? Have Koike and other hawks made an honest assessment of what capabilities Japan will realistically need to possess in order to carry out this mission? If Japan is to have a proper debate about preemption versus deterrence, the advocates of preemption ought to be honest about what the JSDF would need to possess — and what such an arms program would cost.

For now, all I see is posturing from politicians like Koike about how Japan lacks a "true national defense."

Other posts by Tobias Harris: