Japan’s security situation is ripe for change. There are a number of initiatives Tokyo can take to strengthen its strategic situation without markedly increasing defense spending, or reciprocating the belligerency of neighboring states.
– Greater cooperation with South Korea and the United States. The three powers share interest in areas such as counterproliferation, ballistic missile defense, protection of the sea lanes, and anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Direct, one-on-one cooperation by Japan with South Korea may not be feasible at this time, but both sides may be amenable to cooperating under an initiative led by the United States. In the area of Ballistic Missile Defense, all three powers are essentially threatened by the same nuclear-armed states, so it follows all might benefit from cooperation on ballistic missile defense. While Japan already has an effective ballistic missile defense, cooperation with other countries means access to shared assets and capabilities. An organization based on the North American Air Defense Command could be established to command and control regional BMD assets to provide a common response to threats.
– Evolve an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capability. Japan’s Self Defense Forces are highly specialized and effective in preventing an adversary from establishing air superiority over Japan, successfully executing a BMD attack, closing Japan’s sea lanes, or invading Japan outright. But in order for Chinese naval forces to sortie into the Northwestern Pacific, they must transit areas close to Japanese territory. The ability to close off China’s access to the Northwestern Pacific with mines, small missile-armed craft, and submarines would go a long way towards curbing Chinese belligerence without resorting to a conventional weapons arms race.
– Increase the ability to project so-called “soft power”. Japan should commission one or more hospital ships with the ability to rapidly send medical and humanitarian expertise overseas. These ships could be sent throughout the Pacific Rim, even into the Indian Ocean and the coast of Africa, to provide humanitarian relief and assistance. Such ships would go a long way towards cooling anti-Japanese enmity in many parts of Asia. To avoid the appearance of being part of a more expeditionary Japanese military, these ships could be placed under command of the Japan Coast Guard, which is under the jurisdiction of the the Ministry of Transportation. In addition, the Ground Self Defense Forces, which have a prodigious number of engineers, could transfer some to the Ministry of Transportation as well, to create an organization capable of doing everything from building roads in remote areas to reopening airports and port facilities after a natural disaster.
– Drop the arms export ban. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in selling arms to responsible governments, and selling arms abroad to such governments could bring in much-needed revenue. The export ban is generally not seen by the outside world as a credible way to decrease the number of conflicts worldwide. (In comparison Sweden, which is one of the biggest arms exporters in the world, is generally seen as a country that promotes peace in useful ways that have nothing to do with arms sales.)
– Joint weapons development and procurement with other countries. The spiraling cost of weapons development, as well the relatively small number of per-unit weapons purchases by the Self-Defense Forces is making weapons procurement extremely expensive. Also, although Japan has a reputation for being a high-tech nation, it does lag behind other nations in the development of certain technologies, the most critical of which being fighter development. Japan could, for example, pair with the United States, Sweden, or France to undertake fighter development, all of which are friendly countries with advanced fighter industries.
Although Japan has had a longstanding tradition of building weapons domestically, it may be time for it to simply give up certain industrial bases in the interests of cost-efficiency. Japan could, for example, purchase amphibious vessels from France, and small arms from Germany. These are just examples, but they’re examples of areas where Japanese industry is either not up to world standard or would require a significant investment to begin production. Buying off-the-shelf in some areas would allow Japan to increase investment in other, vital areas.
– Generate the ability to pre-emptively destroy existential threats. If Japan were under threat of an imminent ballistic missile attack from North Korea, the lack of offensive weapons in Japan’s inventory means it could not strike first and destroy the threat even if it wanted to. Japan’s sole strategy would be to use its’ BMD defenses to absorb the attack, and then either wait until North Korea were out of missiles or convince the United States to retaliate. Either response would be entirely out of the hands of Japan. When diplomacy has failed, Japan must have the ability to destroy threats to its existence, particularly when those involved weapons of mass destruction
– The deeper Japan’s relationships with other countries, the safer it is. The next step for Japan is joint operations with other countries. Japan’s best bet for the future is to burrow into relationships with key allies as deeply as possible, and strive for maximum interoperability. Although the United States and Japan have enjoyed a bilateral defense relationship for fifty years, joint commands between the two have been unheard of. As an example, Raymond Pritchett at the naval security blog Information Dissemination has proposed putting Japanese fighter squadrons on American aircraft carriers.
– The redefining of Japanese security policy as able to accept collective self-defense, and a pledge to defend America would give Japan the more equal alliance with the United States that the new DPJ-led government proclaims it wants, but Japan seems averse to taking the step. Nevertheless, the inherent unfairness of Japan’s stance on collective security is obvious to all and must eventually change.
Altogether, the implementation of these suggestions would not only increase Japan’s security position, they would also help bring it, in international relations terms, into the realm of modern nations. A Japan that can project hard and soft power at will, act preemptively against threats, actively defend other countries, and is fully integrated with its allies is a Japan that has all the functions of a modern state.