The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a brief period of unparalleled security for Japan. The collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with the U.S. – Japan alliance, made the 1990s probably the safest ten years in Japan’s history. However, a number of new potential threats, including a nuclear-armed North Korea, a muscular China, and threats to energy security have spelled a reversal of fortune for Japan that promises to make the early twenty first century radically different than previous decades.
Against these challenges and threats, Japan is fast approaching the need to make several critical defense-related decisions. Japan must re-prioritize its defense spending to effectively deter rising challenges without a substantial increase in the defense budget. Japan must also alter its existing defense policy, which remains rooted in the logic and of the Cold War. Here are challenges preoccupying Japanese policymakers.
- A greater array of threats. Japan faces a more diverse array of external threats than ever before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s main threat to Japan lay in its ability to blockade the Home Islands and conduct a landing on Hokkaido. That threat is gone, but a new palette of new threats have replaced it, from the prospect of North Korean nuclear weapons, to various disputes with China, and even international terrorism.
- Increased belligerency from neighbors. After a relatively quiet previous two decades, China and Russia have become increasingly belligerent in their relations with Japan over the last year. China has begun asserting itself near the disputed Senkaku islands, sometimes aggressively, and went all-out to secure the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain detained when his fishing boat rammed a Japan Coast Guard vessel. Russia has re-emphasized its claim to the disputed Northern Territories, going so far as using the dispute over their ownership to justify purchasing large amphibious vessels.
- China now spends three times as much on defense as Japan. China’s defense spending over the past ten years has increased at an average of 15% a year. Japan, on the other hand, has kept defense spending flat. (Japan has a self-imposed 1% of GDP spending cap on defense, and currently that number is actually at something like .88% ) A prudent Japan can only look at that upward trajectory of Chinese spending and conclude that, with American power parceled out worldwide and Chinese power concentrated less than 1,000 miles from Japan, Japan also has to increase spending. The question is whether or not Japan will be wise enough to resist being dragged into arms races that count plane vs. plane and ship vs. ship.
- Doing away with the arms export ban. The arms export ban is based on the “3 Principles” laid out by Prime Minister Einsaku Sato in the mid-1960s: 1. no selling to the communist bloc, 2.) no selling to countries under UN arms embargo, and 3.) no countries involved in or likely to be involved in armed conflicts. While theoretically this only excluded a minority of countries, the arms ban was understood to apply to all countries with the exception of the United States.
Although it would be deeply unpopular with Japanese citizens, the ban appears set to weaken. The immediate cause of this is joint weapons development undertaken with the United States, which the U.S. will then seek to export to third parties. Farther out, there are other reasons: Japanese defense contractors are forbidding from selling their wares abroad, and the relatively modest size of the Self Defense Forces, coupled with the growing cost of modern weapons, ensures high prices for the government and low profits for the contractors. Exporting weapons that the government buys would allow all parties to take advantage of economies of scale. Finally, the insatiable global market for arms may not be something that Japan, which is known as a quality exporter and that could use another market to compete in, cannot ignore forever.
- A lack of “punch” in the Self Defense Forces. The SDF, true to its goal of being a purely defensive force, deliberately does not own such things as aircraft carriers, bombers, and cruise missiles. The lack of offensive capability in the Self Defense Forces means that, without American intervention, any country picking a fight with Japan would not have to worry about losing but instead merely not winning. Japan lacks the ability to carry the fight to an enemy’s homeland and actually win a war. Japan is also incapable of acting preemptively — for example, destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad that is aimed at Japan. The immense destructive power of nuclear weapons, paired with missile delivery systems, raises the consequences of inaction even higher.
- Japan is incapable of standing alone in Asia. Whether some people in Japan like it or not, Japan is stuck with America as its key ally. Russia is unpleasant and uncooperative. Korea is divided and Korean nationalism will preclude any serious cooperation with Japan for the foreseeable future. In the latest iteration of the Pacific power triumvirate, Japan can stand with China or the United States against the other, but there are ideological and historical reasons that prevent Japan from siding with China. There is also a great deal of utility in aligning with other old adversaries, including Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India.
- Japan needs to recognize it has the right to collective self-defense. One component of the U.S. – Japan alliance that some observers don’t realize is that while the U.S. is explicitly obliged to defend Japan, Japan is under no obligation to reciprocate. Japan currently interprets its constitution as expressly prohibiting “collective self defense”. However, to enter into more mature, mutually beneficial security relationships with other countries, Japan is going to have to accept responsibility for the defense of other countries. America’s alliance with Japan was a unique deal borne out of the Cold War, and no other nation will pledge to defend Japan without reciprocation