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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.