Japan’s “Remilitarization”: More Baby Steps

By: Mei Lim, Columnist

Photo Credit: Christian Science Monitor

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has pushed to increase its defense capabilities. However, progress will remain piecemeal until Japanese society moves away from their extreme pacifist position.

Abe, a well-known conservative, faced a mixed response when he became prime minister in end-2012. China and South Korea played up the specter of an aggressive remilitarized Japan, largely for domestic consumption, but also because of the residual scars of imperialist Japan. The United States welcomed the prospect of Japan taking on more of the load in their bilateral defense partnership. The rest of the region was measured: slightly wary of an aggressive Japan, but welcoming of the prospect of a stronger Japanese military to balance growing Chinese maritime assertiveness and doubts about long-term US commitments to the region.

Since then, Japan’s environment has become increasingly unfriendly. China has created military outposts in the South China Sea, improving its power-projection capabilities while North Korea has made real gains in its nuclear and missile programs, repeatedly and belligerently advertising the fact. Further, the Trump administration has dealt a body blow to US confidence in the region. Despite these pressures, Japan has more shuffled than sprinted away from their pacifist position.

First, the good news: under Abe, Japan’s defense spending has reversed a decade-long trend of decline to grow for five consecutive years.[i] The larger budget will help fund a larger submarine fleet, adding teeth to Japan’s monitoring and potential strike abilities against the PLA Navy.[ii] The Abe administration decided to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defense, allowing it to provide military escort for US ships and otherwise come to allies’ aid.[iii] Japan even lifted a self-imposed ban on arms sales, though high prices have kept them from closing deals.

Unfortunately, Japan’s strategic options remain heavily constrained by its pacifist constitution. With the North Korean threat, Japan would be better served by the ability to deliver a few successful offensive missiles strikes as a deterrent. Instead, it has been stuck trying to bolster its missile defense systems, which cannot cover the whole of Japan 24/7, improving early-warning capabilities, and possibly acquiring additional assets, such as the land-based Aegis missile defense system or the mid-range THAAD system.[iv][v] Even with total coverage, these systems could still be overwhelmed by large-scale attacks.[vi]

Japan’s defense spending is also outclassed by China’s. While China spends approximately 2% of its much larger GDP on defense, Japan’s remains around 1%.[vii] China also funnels considerably more resources into their coast guard and maritime militia. This difference in spending shows most clearly over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Although Japan has an able navy and coast guard, neither are well-equipped to deal with a large-scale mobilization of Chinese maritime militia in a “grey zone” conflict. The Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) development of amphibious forces and stationing of ground-troops on nearby islands are designed to counter a conventional Chinese military attack. These would be a poor fit to handle an ostensibly civilian fleet of Chinese fishermen and activists if they circumvent Japanese Coast Guard ships and seize the disputed islands.[viii]

For Japan to radically improve its defense capabilities, a massive shift in mindset is needed away from its pacifist stance to something that more closely approximates normal military thinking. However, despite Abe’s attempts over nearly five years, this shift has not happened. The Japanese public remains generally opposed to military adventurism. Japan’s peacekeeping mission in Sudan was cancelled just months after new legislation expanded the role they could play. Despite official claims to the contrary, the move was clearly in response to domestic opposition to Japan staying on in an increasingly unstable region that might have required JSDF involvement in combat situations. Even North Korea’s recent grandstanding has not provided the impetus for Japan’s right to obtain offensive weapons to gain traction.

Nonetheless, Abe has continued trying to change Japanese attitudes towards the military and pave the way for its “normalization”. Earlier this year, he announced plans to amend the pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution and set a deadline for the first time: 2020. Although Abe’s announcement would have helped rally his conservative base after a series of domestic scandals, he has renewed his long-time pursuit of improving Japan’s ability to defend itself. Constitutional amendment in Japan requires a referendum, making it a slow process. Abe will hit his term limit in late 2021, which does not leave him much time.

Abe’s odds for pushing through substantive changes are not good. He would first need to score a compelling win at the upcoming election—but polls in end-September show his popularity levels flagging. Public disapproval levels of Abe exceed approval at 46.2% to 40.6% respectively. [ix] Even with an election win, shepherding in constitutional change will probably extend well in 2019 when he will lose even more political mileage implementing the income tax hike due then. Abe will most likely end up taking a middle-of-the-road option that will leave Japan’s position fundamentally unchanged. He has already mooted the idea of simply amending the constitution to explicitly recognize the JSDF, whose constitutionality is sometimes challenged.

Without a major change to how it views its options for defense, Japan risks not only its own security, but the rest of the region’s. The United States’ underwriting of Japan’s deterrence needs has allowed Japan to get away with piecemeal improvements to its military capabilities that deal with a narrower range of threats. However, China’s growing military strength and North Korea’s missile development threaten to erode the value of US deterrence. Japan would do well to tip the scales in its favor by bolstering US deterrence capabilities with its own. Although such a move might be criticized for contributing to a regional arms race, the sad truth is, the arms race would continue regardless of Japan’s efforts. By making the US-Japan alliance more formidable, Japan could make the region more stable by maintaining the status quo power dynamics.

[i] “The fiscal 2017 budget.” The Japan Times. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/12/27/editorials/fiscal-2017-budget/.

[ii] “Japan’s crack submarine fleet|選択出版株式会社.” Sentaku. August 23, 2016. Accessed October 09, 2017. https://sentaku-en.com/articles/2016/08/japans-crack-submarine-fleet.html.

[iii] “Izumo helicopter carrier’s escort mission more symbolic than practical.” The Mainichi. May 02, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017. https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170502/p2a/00m/0na/018000c.

[iv] “Japan to install land-based Aegis missile defense amid N. Korea woes.” Kyodo News. August 17, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017. https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2017/08/1f6ca74d5139-japan-to-install-land-based-aegis-missile-defense-amid-n-korea-woes.html.

[v] “Ministry eyes THAAD system for Japan’s missile defense.” The Mainichi. November 25, 2016. Accessed October 09, 2017. https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20161125/p2a/00m/0na/007000c.

[vi] “The grand fiction called missile defense.” The Japan Times. April 19, 2017. Accessed October 08, 2017. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/04/19/commentary/japan-commentary/grand-fiction-called-missile-defense/.

[vii] China Power Team. “What does China really spend on its military?” ChinaPower Project. August 03, 2017. Accessed October 08, 2017. https://chinapower.csis.org/military-spending/ – toc-3.

[viii] Morris, Lyle J. “The New ‘Normal’ in the East China Sea.” The RAND Blog. February 24, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017. https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/02/the-new-normal-in-the-east-china-sea.html.

[ix] Kihara, Leika. “Disapproval rating for Japan PM Abe exceeds support: Kyodo poll.” Reuters. October 01, 2017. Accessed October 08, 2017. https://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCAKCN1C613F-OCATP.

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