Defense -- The Perfect Storm

Illustration: Missiles overhead.

By Tobias Harris

Will the conservatives change the face of Japan’s defense policy?

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 nor has it 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. Shinzo Abe is back in the spotlight. The conservatives, marginalized as public focus turned to the economy, experienced a surge after the launch.

Prime Minister Taro Aso 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 Judge Shunji Yanai, 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. Following the April 5 launch, 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 mid-course 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 United States and the U.S.-Japan alliance posed by North Korean missiles to move their agenda.

Meanwhile, other conservatives are using the U.S. Response to argue that instead of collective self-defense, Japan should be more focused on acquiring the capabilities necessary to defend itself. A recent Yoshiko Sakurai article from Shukan Daiyamondo weekly magazine, 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 weekly magazine, covers much of the same ground but focuses more on how the United States 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 U.S. Budgetary decisions. (Sakurai actually backs away from the argument that the United States is somehow weaker militarily and focuses on the dangers of Obama’s naivete). Yet another article by Sakurai, this one in the Shukan Daiyamondo weekly magazine, 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 Hiroyuki Noguchi, a defense reporter for the Sankei Shimbun, lavishes praise on the F-22 in a manner surely unmatched by all but the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 United States. Surely China’s fleet review 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 Keiichiro Asao, the defense minister in the DPJ’s next cabinet, called for conventional capabilities that would enable Japan to strike North Korean launchers preemptively on Saturday. (Full disclosure: I previously worked in Asao’s office.)

I have no problem with Japan 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, Ichita Yamamoto, 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 commentator 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 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 “cooperative” 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. JI

Tobias Harris is a Ph.D. Student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has been published in The Wall Street Journal Asia and the Far Eastern Economic Review, and has appeared as an analyst on CNBC Asia’s “Asia Squawkbox.” He also blogs for Newsweek Japan.