Evolutionary or Revolutionary? Japan's Defense Strategy
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Evolutionary or Revolutionary? Japan's Defense Strategy

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Publication of Japan’s newest defense white paper has triggered the usual dark speculations about the country’s future. Conversations in Beijing and Seoul begin with the premise that Japan is becoming more right wing in its defense policy and political orientation. Yes, the nation of “Asahi-reading realists” is becoming less blinkered in its assessment of the regional security environment. But the evolution in Japanese security thinking is evolutionary: changes remain incremental and the bulwarks against a radical shift remain firmly in place.

The white paper rightly notes that the Asia-Pacific region “is considerably rich in political, economic, ethnic, and religious diversity, and conflicts between countries/regions remain.” North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear program are considered “a significant threat” to Japan, while China’s military modernization effort and lack of transparency “are a source of concern,” as are “its expanding and intensifying activities in waters close to Japan.”

The white paper concludes, reasonably enough, that “defense capabilities are vital for ensuring an appropriate response to various contingencies arising from the security challenges and destabilizing factors, which are diverse, complex, and intertwined…” In particular it calls for “building up functions such as warning and surveillance, maritime patrols, air defense, response to ballistic missiles, transportation, and command control communications …” To the objective observer, these all look like defensive measures.

Nevertheless, recent conversations in China and Korea have been punctuated by alarm about Japanese intentions. Revisions in the outer space law and national energy policy, and the call for reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right to join collective self-defense efforts, all elicited criticism and concern. The critics are right to note a rightward drift in the center of gravity of Japanese national security policy. The Democratic Party of Japan under Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has embraced an agenda that would warm the heart of – and spark considerable envy in – its Liberal Democratic Party predecessors. To some degree, this reflects the prime minister’s own inclinations, but it is also part of a wider phenomenon: the left in Japan is dispirited and fighting for its political life after three years of disappointment under DPJ rule, while the right is rejuvenated and focused on a particular agenda (as always).

But the basic defensive orientation remains.  Rarely noted by the critics, the white paper also points out that “Japan has been building a modest defense capability under the Constitution for exclusively defense-oriented purposes without becoming a military power that could threaten other countries, while adhering to the principle of civilian control of the military, observing the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, and firmly maintaining the Japan–U.S. Security Arrangements.” Considerable emphasis is also put on multilateral and cooperative efforts to boost regional security.

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