When Disaster Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

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When Disaster Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

It would be tempting for Japan to withdraw inward following last month’s earthquake and tsunami. So far, though, its leaders have resisted.

Since last month, Japan’s leadership has understandably been focusing on managing the aftermath of the three-fold disaster that struck the north-east of the country. But as it grapples with the enormous projected cost of years of reconstruction efforts, one question has received much less attention: How will the crisis affect Japan’s global engagement?

The answer is more encouraging than you might think.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine reasons why Japan’s leadership might be tempted to disengage, at least temporarily. After all, the total cost of the earthquake and tsunami are enormous. Estimates vary, but the World Bank has suggested it could top $235 billion, while Japan’s Cabinet Office’s has suggested $309 billion. These figures don’t even include the long-term effects of the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the main impact on Japan’s international presence will have an economic dimension, most likely concerning Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). Indeed, the effect on ODA is already being felt. The cabinet has adopted its first $49 billion supplementary budget to finance reconstruction, but instead of issuing deficit-covering bonds, the government is reallocating funds. As part of this, ODA for FY2011 will be reduced by 10 percent, meaning an about $611 million cut. Yet while this reduction is undoubtedly significant, it’s half the figure that was originally floated, a number that would have slashed Japan’s ODA to $5.37 billion—about what it was in 1982.

Another potential casualty of the disaster could be Japan’s international engagement on climate change. Japan has been promoting nuclear power as a way of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and the government had planned by 2020 to have constructed nine new nuclear reactors. This would have allowed Japan to increase the operation ratio of its nuclear plants from 65.7 percent in FY2009 to 85 percent, making the country’s pledge to cut its CO2 emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels much more feasible.

Unsurprisingly, though, the Fukushima crisis has prompted Prime Minister Naoto Kan to state that the government will review last June’s Basic Energy Plan. Under such circumstances, it’s difficult to see how Japan can avoid downward revisions to its emissions goal, a move that could also compromise the country’s ability to play a leading international role on climate change.

Still, it’s far too early to count Japan out on global warming. Despite the review of its energy plan, Japan hasn’t given up on tackling climate change—although the country lost reactors at Fukushima, Japanese delegates to climate talks in Bangkok earlier this month announced Japan’s continued commitment to fulfilling its Kyoto Protocol pledge of cutting emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.

Such continuity is also being seen in the diplomatic arena. Japan’s engagement on the North Korean nuclear issue, for example, remains firm. Not only has Tokyo continued to call on Pyongyang to resolve issues concerning its nuclear and missile programmes, as well as the abductions of Japanese by North Korean agents, but Tokyo also recently extended sanctions against Pyongyang for one year, while siding with Seoul and Washington in refusing a UN request to provide food assistance to Pyongyang.

Such moves have taken place against a backdrop of continuing and steady diplomatic engagement, especially with neighbouring countries. Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, for example, represented Japan in a mid-March G-8 meeting and also hosted a meeting of his Chinese and South Korean counterparts on March 19. In addition, Japan has remained firm over the sovereignty issues that have dogged its ties with other nations in East Asia. Perhaps the clearest sign of Japan’s diplomatic consistency, though, is its continued firmness regarding territorial disputes with China, Russia and South Korea.

In addition to maintaining its diplomatic stances, Japan looks set to continue its robust overseas military engagement. Aegis destroyers and P-3Cs from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) continue to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Similarly, SDF units remain engaged in the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights, staff/liaison officers remain working in Sudan and Haiti, and on March 23, new SDF members began working in Timor-Leste as part of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste.

So far, the only noticeable impact on Japan’s military engagement has been over its participation and co-hosting of the 2nd ASEAN Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise, which was held March 14-19. Originally, Japan was scheduled to participate with SDF assets and about 400 members of the SDF and the Japan Disaster Relief Team (JDRT). But with heavy domestic demands on the SDF, Japan was forced to recall all its SDF personnel and assets, leaving about 40 JDRT doctors and nurses. In addition, Tokyo is still mulling whether to participate in the Pacific Partnership 2011, an annual exercise launched after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that’s designed to improve interoperability of regional militaries, governments, and non-governmental organizations during disaster relief operations.

In fact, far from prompting a reduction in the SDF’s overseas role, it’s possible that last month’s disaster could see a long-term expansion in what its military is asked to do. According to the Defence Ministry, at its peak the SDF had dispatched 107,000 personnel, 543 planes, and 59 ships to engage in the response to the Tohoku earthquake. This operation, essentially a huge humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) mission, has generally been seen as a success.

The SDF has conducted HA/DR missions in the past, but nothing on this scale. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the SDF may draw on this success by prioritizing overseas HA/DR missions in the future. Indeed, there has already been some progress in this direction—on April 9, Association of Southeast Asian Nation foreign ministers and Japan held a Special ASEAN-Japan Ministerial Meeting to discuss efforts to enhance cooperation in disaster management. As part of their agreement, the states agreed to enhance coordination mechanisms and conduct training and capacity building programmes for disaster preparedness, emergency response, relief, and reconstruction efforts.

Of course, any boost in operations for the SDF comes with a price tag attached, at a time when Japan was already eyeing in December’s National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) more submarines, Aegis-equipped destroyers, and PAC-3 interceptor missiles. But despite the costs, continuing threats at a time of such national vulnerability in many ways actually bolster the argument for increased defence spending. For example, Japan relied on the US RQ-4 Global Hawk to assess disaster damage, underscoring the benefits of acquiring more of these unmanned aircraft. Similarly, considering the tsunami destroyed or badly damaged 28 aircraft at the Matsushima Air Base, including 18 F-2s (about a fifth of the country’s fleet), there could be a push for replacement or upgrading of these assets. The Defence Ministry also announced earlier this month that it remained committed to making a decision over its next generation fighter jet within the year.

Japan is arguably more vulnerable than it has ever been since the dark days of its World War Two defeat, and, given the tremendous costs of recovery from last month’s disaster, it would in many ways be understandable if the country decided to turn inward. But while tempting in the short term, doing so would be a mistake in the long term. Thankfully, so far at least, Japan’s leaders don’t see reconstruction and engagement as a zero-sum game.


Jeffrey Hornung is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any organization.