Always rising

For the Western press, Japan is always rising

Forbes and AP have run nearly simultaneous articles reviving the "Japan rising" meme that I thought had died with Abe Shinzo's government.

Tim Kelly of Forbes uses the occasion of the commissioning of the Hyuga — previously mentioned in this postto argue that the launch of Japan's "first aircraft carrier since America dismantled the Imperial Navy a half century ago" is a landmark in Japan's "[creeping] away" from pacifism.

Eric Talmadge, meanwhile, uses the trick of reporting on a US-Japan joint military drill to argue that Japan's military is assuming a "more global role."

The funny thing about Talmadge's article is that it has all the pieces for a very different story, which might be headlined, "Japan remains reluctant to commit military to global role." The story mentions the Somalia dispatch occurring "after much haggling in parliament," "opposition from many Japanese who recall the disaster of the previous century's militarist misadventures" should the government send troops to Afghanistan, a quote from an expert (Eric Heginbotham of RAND) noting that "Japan is still extremely casualty sensitive," and a quote from another expert (Watanabe Tsuneo of the Tokyo Foundation) noting that "there is no consensus among ordinary citizens and politicians." One could take the same quotes and the same facts and write a completely different article talking about Japan's reluctance to play a greater role abroad, while alluding to the possibility of change.

The mistake that both Talmadge and Kelly make is to equate military capabilities with a change in intentions or policy. Kelly's article blithely dismisses the very idea that the Hyuga is anything but an aircraft carrier — and if Japan has an aircraft carrier, it must be interested in expanding its global reach. If Kelly acknowledged that the Hyuga might be something other than an aircraft carrier, as Japanese officials maintain, Kelly would not have a story, because what story is there in "Japan acquires another destroyer?" Talmadge, meanwhile, recognizes that far from enhancing its military capabilities, "Unlike China's double-digit defense spending growth, Japan's has remained flat for years." (In fact, Japan's defense budget has fallen for seven consecutive years, as discussed here.) But he then concludes that Japan has "one of the best-funded and highly regarded militaries in the world." But that is not a new development: Japan has had a high-tech and well-funded military for years. What has changed to merit having this discussion now? Not the Hyuga apparently — Talmadge actually doesn't mention it. (The only mention Kelly makes of Japan's defense spending is that Japan has "a defense budget on par with the more militarily active U.K." and that "if America ever lets Japan buy its latest state-of-the-art warplanes, Asia's pacifist nation has the cash to pay for them.")

Oddly enough, Talmadge's case seems to rest largely on the US-Japan joint missile defense program. But why does he equate a global role with the acquisition of military technology? Missile defense technology is, for Japan, explicitly local, intended "to protect the country — and the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed here — from a potential attack by its unpredictable and often belligerent neighbor, North Korea." Missile defense spending may show that Japan is taking its own defense more seriously, but I would not equate it with Japan's taking a more active global role.

I cannot help but think of everything these articles miss. No mention of the domestic political confusion that has shelved discussions of collective self-defense and constitution revision, which would be far more significant than the acquisition of a helicopter carrier. No mention of the lack of interest among many Japanese in seeing the JSDF used for missions not directly tied to Japan's security, as found in the cabinet's latest defense affairs survey (discussed here). No mention of the Asahi survey finding that many Japanese would like to see the government spend even less on defense than it is spending now. No mention of the smoldering debate between the LDP and the DPJ over Ozawa Ichiro's suggestion that perhaps Japan should consider taking greater responsibility for its own defense, while insisting that he literally meant own defense — a more robust JSDF would not be used abroad.

The puzzling thing about Japanese security policy is not that Japan has become so much more active but that it is still doing so little, despite the best efforts of some US and Japanese policymakers (and journalists like Talmadge and Kelly) to paint a picture of East Asia as unremittingly bleak and threatening for a "pacifist" country like Japan. It seems that the Japanese people will not be scared into becoming "normal." The public would still rather cheap ride on the US security guarantee, with greater role in self-defense a second-best option. But even in doing more to defend itself Japan might still not become the active global power of Talmadge's article. It is easy to imagine a Japan bristling with high-tech weapons for its maritime and air self-defense forces, intended to ensure that no intruders enter Japanese waters or airspace, perhaps while still sending unarmed contributions to UN missions abroad.

For once it would be nice to read an article about Japanese security policy from a mainstream media outlet that acknowledges that Japan is not on a linear trajectory to becoming a "normal" nation, that the lack of a public consensus on security policy is not simply something that will disappear with time; it is a fixture of the landscape that Japanese and US policymakers must acknowledge when considering the future of Japanese security policy.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: