Promise and Potential Peril: Japan’s Military Normalization

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Promise and Potential Peril: Japan’s Military Normalization

To play a productive role in a tense neighborhood, Tokyo needs to look beyond constitutional interpretations.

Promise and Potential Peril: Japan’s Military Normalization
Credit: REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

Facing growing Chinese and North Korean threats plus an increasingly distracted and underfunded U.S. partner, Japan is freeing itself of historical military constraints to better provide for its security. Japan’s path is promising, but it does pose potential risks.

Japan’s constitution was enacted in 1947 while it was occupied by the Allied forces in the wake of World War II. Japan committed gross atrocities during that war, including killing and forced labor of millions of war prisoners and civilians, sexually enslaving women, conducting lethal human experiments, and torture. The U.S. therefore insisted that Japan’s constitution include pacifist provisions. Most notably, Article 9 of that document renounces war, outlaws the use and threat of force to settle international disputes, and relinquishes the right to maintain armed forces.

Since its inception, Article 9 has been stretched. After World War II, Japan had only occupation troops and a small police force to protect it. By 1950, when those troops shifted to fighting the Korean War, Japan was essentially defenseless. Four years later, Tokyo therefore created a quasi-military: its Self-Defense Forces. Japanese law required these military forces, among other things, to maintain a strict defensive orientation and to refrain from deploying overseas and co-developing weapons with other countries. These limits eventually eased. With more than 240,000 active personnel, about 400 fighter jets, three pseudo aircraft carriers, sixteen submarines, and forty-seven destroyers, the Self-Defense Forces can project offensive power outside Japan. Its missions have expanded beyond Japan’s own security needs. For instance, Japan sent the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for reconstruction purposes. And in 2011, Tokyo began jointly producing arms with Washington.

Still, until recently, the Self-Defense Forces remained subject to serious limitations. Among others, Japan could not practice collective self-defense. For example, despite a U.S.-Japanese alliance, Tokyo’s defensive posture barred it from shooting down a North Korean missile in Japanese airspace if that missile targeted the U.S. rather than Japan. Additionally, Tokyo banned arms exports.

However, the security environment has deteriorated in recent years due to growing threats and at least the perception of eroding U.S. defense commitments. Since 2006, North Korea has tested three nuclear weapons, potentially developed nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking Japan, and has killed South Korean troops and civilians.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s declared military budget grew fourfold over the last decade (now at nearly $132 billion), whereas Tokyo’s military funding declined almost every year over that period (now approaching $49 billion). China spends more on its military than Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam combined. Having developed stronger offensive military capabilities, China is aggressively asserting control of (among other areas) the East China Sea, where islands administered by Tokyo are subject to competing Japanese and Chinese claims and where rich fishing grounds, potential oil and gas deposits, and important trade routes lie.

Take the following examples. In January 2013, Chinese warships in those waters locked their weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese helicopter and naval destroyer. In November 2013, Beijing enlarged its air defense identification zone to cover a broad portion of the East China Sea claimed by Tokyo. China demands that aircraft entering the zone identify themselves and divulge flight data, or face “defensive emergency measures.” In the year ending in March 2014, Japan scrambled fighter jets 415 times (a high that is up 36 percent from the previous year) to intercept Chinese aircraft encroaching its claimed airspace. In May and June 2014, Chinese fighter jets intercepted Japanese surveillance planes in contested skies, nearly causing collisions. And throughout this period, China conducted military exercises that the U.S. Navy calls preparation for a “short, sharp war” to seize disputed islands from Japan.

As Japan’s neighborhood has become less safe, its doubts about U.S. security guarantees have grown. Tokyo has studied America’s shrinking military budget, war-weary voters, and expanding list of crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East that reduce resources the U.S. can devote to Asia. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad survived U.S. President Barack Obama’s threat that he must “step aside” and then crossed Obama’s “red line” against gassing his people, Russia annexed Crimea and its proxies shot down a civilian plane, and China is forcibly expanding, including by expelling (with civilian vessels) the Philippines from the contested Scarborough Shoal and sinking (with a fishing vessel) a Vietnamese boat in its bid to find oil in Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone. But the U.S. has responded with little more than routine verbal condemnations and incremental, pinprick sanctions. Japan sees a detached American president loathe to meet serious threats with serious responses, so it questions whether the U.S. will meaningfully back it in a confrontation with China.

Given these dynamics, calls for Japan to field a more flexible military and to forge stronger alliances have increased.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is normalizing Japan’s military. First, in 2013, Japan increased its military budget for the first time in eleven years. Second, in December 2013, Japan created a National Security Council and issued its first strategy paper, which focuses on countering China and beefing up Japan’s military. Third, in April 2014, Tokyo ended its ban on weapons exports and announced that it would jointly develop weapons with other countries in addition to the U.S. Fourth, in July 2014, Japan’s cabinet reinterpreted Article 9 of the country’s constitution to allow it to engage in collective self-defense. The move lays the groundwork for the Self-Defense Forces to use force abroad to defend it allies even if Japan has not been attacked.

This military normalization can help to check China’s increasingly hostile rise.

First, Japan’s military growth may offer new methods to oppose Chinese adventurism. China incrementally presses its territorial claims generally through low-level civilian provocations (such as using its civilian ships to patrol, blockade or expel). Last year, to support this strategy, China placed its civilian maritime forces, including its coast guard, fishing, and surveillance elements, under the control of a single, more powerful non-military agency. To prevent a serious U.S. response, China avoids high-intensity conflicts (like invading a country) and mostly keeps its military forces intimidatingly close but not directly involved in its low-level provocations. The U.S. and its partners are scrambling to meet this strategy as fear of escalation makes the U.S. unwilling to respond forcefully to such moves and the targets of China’s aggression are usually too weak to resist its incursions. Indeed, China’s battlefield, which includes nearly 1.9 million square miles of ocean and airspace encompassing the East and South China Seas, necessitates the wide dispersal of those countries’ limited military resources. But when Beijing picks a fight, it usually overwhelms its targets through sheer numbers.

Japan’s military maturation may be the answer because it can enhance individual and collective military capacities such that America’s regional partners handle China’s low-level provocations without U.S. involvement while the U.S. focuses on China’s high-level threats. According to Zachary Keck, countering Beijing’s low-level provocations requires countries skirmishing with China to acquire “greater quantities of lower-end platforms” to “maintain a larger presence throughout the massive waters of the South and East China Seas. These capabilities don’t need to be especially high-end since China relies heavily on Coast Guard and other civilian vessels . . . . But they do need to be in the areas that China is contesting, preferably beforehand to deter Beijing from trying to contest them in the first place.” As Keck points out, limited defense budgets will bar some of China’s competitors from procuring a sufficient number of even lower-end platforms. Thus, other force multipliers, such as Washington and Tokyo donating decommissioned military equipment to and coordinated defense efforts among Beijing’s adversaries, are needed.

To realize this strategy, Japan’s military must be given wider operating parameters and field stronger aerial, amphibious, maritime, and surveillance capabilities to defend (and perhaps recapture) its islands and assist its neighbors. Even so, Japan must not procure too many big-ticket weapons that overstretch its military budget given its contracting economy or that leave it vulnerable to asymmetric, dispersed or sizeable attacks. To those ends, Japan expects to acquire by 2019 six more submarines, three reconnaissance drones, seventeen Osprey aircraft, fifty-two amphibious landing vehicles, four more refueling tankers, seven additional naval destroyers, four more maritime patrol aircraft, and twenty-eight F-35 jet fighters, and it is repositioning its military resources further south to be closer to areas contested by China.

Also, Tokyo must train Beijing’s rivals and provide them with military and maritime law enforcement hardware, including patrol and surveillance equipment. Japan should not arm its neighbors with only military vessels, because if those units are used for maritime law enforcement purposes (because of a shortage of civilian coast guard vessels), they undermine the narrative of unilateral Chinese aggression and give Beijing an excuse to “defensively escalate” by calling in its own warships. To make its technology more affordable, Japan should centralize its weapons development, procurement, and exports systems into a single agency and expand its arms sales to spread costs.

Second, Japan’s military normalization portends the creation of a new alliance system in Asia. Peace in that region has been secured primarily through bilateral relationships between the U.S. on the one hand and Japan and South Korea on the other. The U.S. could rely on these narrow alliances instead of cultivating multilateral relationships because it has been significantly more powerful than China. But if Beijing nears surpassing Washington in Asia, the weaker countries surrounding China will be tempted to acquiesce to its hegemonic ambitions. Still, these countries may oppose Chinese ascendancy if a waning U.S. has sufficient support, such as a stronger and more flexible Japan anchoring multilateral alliances in Asia.

Washington and many of Tokyo’s neighbors, including Australia, India, the Philippines and Vietnam, support Japan’s military normalization. Indeed, high-ranking government officials from nearly all of these countries have openly praised Japan’s actions. And during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to reinterpret Article 9, military cooperation between Japan and each of these countries has increased, including military training and aid, joint weapons development, and arms sales. Even Taiwan, which shares China’s territorial claims and was occupied by Japan, appears receptive. Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui stated that Japan exercising collective self-defense will make the region safer. And Taipei appears to have not publicly protested Tokyo’s construction of a radar station and forthcoming deployment of troops on Yonaguni Island, which is 67 miles from Taiwan and 93 miles from islands claimed by Beijing, Tokyo and Taipei.

If Japan fails to live up to its grand announcements about assuming a larger military role, however, it is unlikely to inspire a following. It is thus troubling that since stating last year that it would supply Vietnam with used coast guard boats, Japan has delayed the transfer because its substantial patrol duties leave it with insufficient spare vessels and it is debating whether it is legally barred from sharing those boats with Vietnam.

Japan’s military normalization also poses potential risks.

First, domestic opposition to Japan’s military normalization may weaken the country.

Article 9 reinterpretation must be approved by Japan’s parliament (the Diet), and restrictions could be added. Initially, the Abe government expected the Diet to pass the requisite legislation by the end of 2014 as the ruling coalition controls both parliamentary houses. But now the Abe administration plans to wait about a year to implement the changes given that since they were announced, Japanese street protests have persisted, Abe’s approval rating dropped below 50 percent for the first time, and Japan’s ruling party unexpectedly lost a local election, which Abe blamed in part on the Article 9 reinterpretation. Indeed, Japanese polls demonstrate that at least half of the respondents oppose Japan practicing collective self-defense. And even once Article 9 reinterpretation is approved and assuming it is not severely limited during that process, ordering collective self-defense measures may prove difficult for fear of losing public support or due to insufficient funding (even with Tokyo’s increased defense spending, its military budget accounts for only 1 percent of its shrinking GDP). Japanese impotence will only embolden China and North Korea.

Furthermore, the battle over Japan’s military normalization may harm its other defense interests. First, in Japan’s next national elections, upset voters could select doves to restore Japanese pacifism and slash its military budget. Second, politicians in Okinawa, which hosts nearly three-quarters of U.S. military bases in Japan on less than 1 percent of the country’s landmass, may exploit ill feelings about military normalization to further anti-base sentiment as the U.S. tries to relocate such a base on Okinawa. Finally, after fighting to reinterpret Article 9, Abe may have insufficient political capital to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a draft free trade agreement that is expected to revitalize Japan’s economy and to help it afford a larger military role, but which Japanese (and American) interest groups have stalled.

Second, Japan’s military normalization may push South Korea closer to China. Japanese-South Korean relations are at a postwar nadir. South Korean President Park Geun-hye nearly refuses to speak to Abe. Park likely considers rapprochement with Japan politically risky as South Koreans view North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un more favorably than they do Abe and nearly half of them deem Japan a “military threat” to their country. South Koreans believe that Abe whitewashes Japan’s colonial past. In December 2013, he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, are honored. Also that year, Abe created a government panel to reexamine the 1993 Kono Statement, which is Japan’s apology for sexually enslaving Korean women during World War II. The panel’s June 2014 report undermines the statement’s legitimacy by implying that it was a political concession to South Korea and casting doubt on some of the victims’ testimonies. Given this background, South Korea hesitates to cooperate with Japan, including by refusing to participate in trilateral military intelligence sharing and missile defense agreements with the U.S. and Japan.

China is trying to widen the Japanese-South Korean divide and bring South Korea deeper into its orbit. First, each time that Japan announces a military normalization policy, China denounces it as a return to Tokyo’s wartime past. Second, China recently stoked South Korea’s historical grievances against Japan by constructing memorials that honor Koreans who opposed Japanese colonization. Third, Beijing has snubbed Pyongyang to curry favor in Seoul. South Korea’s and China’s leaders have met five times since early last year, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has not yet met with North Korea’s ruler. Last month, Beijing broke tradition by having its president visit only South Korea during his first visit to the Korean Peninsula. Finally, South Korea’s economic dependence on China is increasing. China is South Korea’s top destination for foreign investment and largest trade partner. Between 1992 and 2013, trade between these countries ballooned from $6 billion to more than $270 billion, which exceeds the combined value of South Korea’s trade with the U.S. and Japan. Last year, more than 26 percent of South Korea’s exports went to China – up from 10.7 percent in 2000 – making it South Korea’s largest export market. These trends will likely intensify as China and South Korea recently announced plans to finalize by the end of this year a bilateral free trade pact.

Fortunately, these problems are not insurmountable.

Regarding the Japanese public’s opposition to shifting away from pacifism, the prolonged approval process for Article 9 reinterpretation allows the Abe administration to garner the widest possible national consensus. Notably, polls that frame the matter as strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance (as opposed to merely referencing collective self-defense) receive greater support. The Abe administration must therefore pitch its policies accordingly, and use future Chinese and North Korean provocations to highlight the necessity of Japan’s military growth. The Japanese public appears persuadable, given a new poll that shows that 84.1 percent of them believe the Abe administration’s explanation of the rationale for collective self-defense is unclear. Moreover, the Abe administration should try to win public support by explaining that lucrative deals for Japanese military technology, including those recently signed or being considered by Australia, Britain, India, and the U.S., create jobs.

It is doubtful that China can draw South Korea away from the U.S. and Japan. After all, as Michael Auslin notes, a revisionist China threatens South Korea more than a liberal, democratic Japan. And Seoul’s security stems from its alliance with Washington, which requires U.S. access to bases in Japan. Indeed, South Korea recently displayed doubt about its military capabilities by requesting another delay in transitioning wartime control of its armed forces from Washington to Seoul.

Still, China may be able to preclude the U.S.-South Korean relationship from developing into a trilateral alliance with Japan. Tokyo must therefore take bolder, irreversible steps to atone for its historic abuses, such as meeting with comfort women or building a memorial to its wartime victims. Although Japan has apologized several times to South Korea, government officials in Tokyo have undermined some of those expressions and South Korea has deemed many of them insufficient. As Keck suggests, Seoul should inform Tokyo what “concrete actions” will satisfy it, rather than making vague demands that are difficult to decipher, like Tokyo must “show sincerity.” If Japan complies, South Korea should publicly acknowledge Japan’s reconciliation as a final resolution. Thereafter, South Korea must refrain from allowing the revisionist actions of a vocal minority of Japanese to sour its relationship with an entire strategically valuable country. Moreover, the U.S. and Japan must conclude the TPP, and then add South Korea to it. That deal will create a huge free trade zone, which will reduce Seoul’s economic dependence on Beijing and give it greater latitude to oppose China.

The alarming militarism in Asia emanates from Beijing and Pyongyang, not Tokyo. More disruption from those countries should be expected as China seeks regional hegemony and North Korea continues its nuclear brinkmanship to maximize concessions from the international community. To China, territorial and maritime contests in its periphery represent tests of wills and battles for control of strategic chokepoints so Beijing can drive the U.S. out of Asia and foreclose encirclement by its rivals. Weaker Asian countries should be debating whether to balance against or bandwagon with China. Given Japan’s peaceful record since World War II, a consensus is forming that closer military ties to a resurgent Japan (and its ally the U.S.) are the safer path forward.

Paul J. Leaf worked for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is a regular commentator on foreign policy and an attorney at an international law firm.