James Holmes

How Japan’s Military Should Change

“Providing the best defense possible while affronting the fewest audiences possible should be Tokyo’s goal.”

James R. Holmes

There's been a flurry of defense-related news out of Tokyo this week. More is doubtless in the offing as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his lieutenants revise Japan's National Defense Program Guidelines, the government's most authoritative statement of how it sees the security environment and intends to manage it.

A Chinese correspondent emails to ask the Naval Diplomat's views about all of this, including such matters as revising the postwar "peace" constitution to "normalize" the status of the Self-Defense Forces as a regular military force, and perhaps rename the SDF as such; undertaking collective self-defense measures alongside U.S. forces; mounting a more active defense against ballistic-missile attack; and reorienting forces toward defense of the southwestern islands. Whew! Is that all?

My answer, in brief, is that Tokyo should proceed on all of these fronts except the renaming issue, and that any constitutional revisions should spell out, explicitly and unambiguously, that the SDF will never go on the strategic offensive. Abe & Co. must elucidate their purposes with utter clarity, even as they shift to a less passive operational and tactical stance that's less dependent on the United States. They should forego certain options in advance. In that sense, the Japanese military should remain abnormal.

This is a Thucydidean answer, I suppose. Regular readers of these pixels know that I heartily endorse the Greek historian's maxim that fear, honor, and interest constitute the prime movers driving human actions. Japan's leadership must consider how the NDPG, and its efforts to put the document into effect, will play with each regional audience in each of these domains. Providing the best defense possible while affronting the fewest audiences possible should be Tokyo's goal. The leadership should understand, however, that it cannot satisfy some important audiences — read China — short of granting them a veto over its defense strategy.

Japan has some things going for it. It is a deeply conservative power, for instance. It wants to conserve what is, namely the liberal, American-led maritime order. Apart from the perpetually aggrieved in Beijing, few sincerely believe that adjusting the SDF's posture to hit back against North Korean missile sites after Pyongyang strikes the first blow, or to repulse an amphibious assault on the Ryukyu Islands, augurs a new Japanese rampage through Asia — a campaign that would gut a status quo that benefits the island nation so handsomely. The capacity to do so just isn't there, and won't be even should Tokyo undertake a sizable boost in defense spending. Nor is the will.

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

Why is renaming the SDF a big deal? The Bard suggested that names matter little. I disagree, in this case at least. Presumably the point would be to state the obvious, namely that Japan does indeed field an army, navy, and air force. The leadership may also intend to telegraph resolve to audiences in China, and thus to deter. The former is a semantic endeavor, hardly worth incurring any blowback. The latter is more portentous.

Here's my Thucydidean counterpoint: rebranding the SDF might broadcast fortitude, but it would also trigger honor and fear reflexes far beyond Beijing. "Self-Defense Forces" is an umbrella term to which regional capitals have grown accustomed over the course of decades. Their relative comfort affords Tokyo some latitude to tinker with roles, missions, and force structure. But changing the name while simultaneously girding for active defense would imply a revolution in Japanese purposes as well as Japanese power.

That Tokyo wants a revolution is the last message any prime minister should want to send. Shift strategies by all means. As an American I would welcome a more equal security alliance. Indeed, Tokyo should consider increasing the defense budget substantially to fund such an arrangement, rather than seeking the trivial uptick in spending that Abe has floated.

This is less radical than it may sound. Japan could double defense spending, informally capped at 1 percent of GDP, while remaining firmly on a peacetime footing. Look at NATO, which fixes its defense-spending benchmark for member states at 2 percent of GDP. Japan inhabits a hardscrabble neighborhood. Embracing the standard set by an alliance that faces no plausible threat hardly equates to rearming for conquest.

Japan should explain its purposes early and often — and act.