Bang for your buck
Illustration: Phil Couzens

The Hatoyama government will delay on defense policy

Busy with the hard work of introducing a new policymaking process, rewriting the 2010 budget from scratch so to make room for the programs promised in the DPJ's election manifesto, and finding a way to extract concessions from the Obama administration on the realignment of US forces in Japan, it is understandable that the Hatoyama government has been relatively silent on the question of defense ministry reform. Recall that under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, in the shadow of the investigation of defense trading company Yoko Yamada, then-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba launched a process of defense ministry reform, a process that took on greater urgency after the Atago, an MSDF Aegis destroyer, collided with a fishing vessel.

But Ishiba was out as defense minister not long after his commission produced its final report and not long before Fukuda himself was out. Thereafter the Aso government let defense ministry reform — and defense procurement reform — drop from the agenda.

The Hatoyama government should be interested in reviving procurement reform, given how wasteful Japan's defense spending is even as budgets have tightened over the past decade. The government should be eager to end expensive defense procurement practices like purchasing small numbers of defense platforms every year instead of making multi-year purchases in bulk. Intended to preserve an indigenous defense industry, the price of these practices has been steep: the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan concludes that these measures have "raised the cost of Japanese systems 300 percent to 1,000 percent higher than comparable equipment built in other countries that have adopted enhanced procurement reforms."

The government has not completely forgotten about defense reform, but last week the defense ministry announced that it will scrap the plan drafted under the LDP, most notably its proposal to mix civilians at the defense ministry with JSDF personnel, which was to be introduced next fiscal year. Instead Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that government will delay reform for a year and draft its own plans.

It is not only defense ministry reform that will be delayed. Not surprisingly given that it is barely a month old, the Hatoyama government has decided that it will delay the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) that was supposed to be released in December until next year. It will also delay the related Mid-Term Defense Program, which outlines the government's defense spending plans. In the meantime the Hatoyama government will do what previous governments did in advance of the 1995 and 2004 national defense reviews: it will convene a council of experts to help revise the NDPG.

Hopefully delaying a year will result in a better document, an NDPG that points the way forward for the JSDF in an era of constrained budgets, maximizing the efficiency of Japan's defense spending while seriously considering the roles that the JSDF can play that enable Japan to contribute abroad without violating the constitution. It is unlikely that the DPJ will reverse the decline in defense spending, not with its commitment to building a more comprehensive welfare state while cutting budgetary waste and trying to prevent the economy from falling back into recession. That, and if anything the public wants the government to spend less on defense (as found in the poll mentioned here and in other polls). But given that austerity in defense spending will continue for the foreseeable future, the DPJ insist that Japan get the most of its limited defense spending. That would be a far cry from "remilitarizing" Japan, but it would show that the Hatoyama government takes national defense seriously, inoculating it against the LDP's inevitable criticism come election time.

The next NDPG and mid-term defense program come at an important time. China's military spending has continued to grow unabated, the mounting fiscal crisis in the US inevitably will raise questions about the durability and scale of the US security presence in East Asia, and Japan's own fiscal difficulties mean that the Hatoyama government has to determine how its defense strategy fits with its plans for relations with the US, China, and Asia more broadly and with its plans for administrative and budgetary reform. Hopefully the government will staff its advisory commission with heavyweights and give them the freedom to tackle this set of problems in full.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: