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Paper 1039                                                    29.06.2004

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Background:

Japan today stands poised at the strategic cross roads in terms of defining its future national security requirements. For more than half a century, the bedrock of Japan’s national security has been its Mutual Security Treaty with the United States. As part of this treaty, Japan has hosted and paid for the presence on Japanese soil of a sizeable presence of US Army, US Navy and US Air Force and also a complete US Marines divisional size expeditionary force on Okinawa. These United States military forces, by their forward presence, formed an outer defence line of continental United States besides providing for defence of Japan as per Treaty obligations. 

This system has worked well for both United States and Japan despite some occasional irritants and local opposition. During the Cold War years Japan’s security was well ensured as United States strategic focus in terms of the global bi-polar confrontation was firstly in Europe, where NATO took care of the theatre and secondly in the North West Pacific where Japan was the linch-pin of American strategies. 

In the decade past, since the end of the Cold War, the predictable strategic template has been replaced by global and regional uncertainties making it difficult for even the United States to meet all the emerging challenges. 

Japan’s regional security environment is changing and so are the challenges including strategic choices which Japan has to make in addition to its Mutual Security Treaty with USA or any other choices in terms of a self-reliant military capability. 

This paper attempts to analyse Japan’s strategic choices, but first a look at Japan’s security environment, which has a bearing on these choices. 

Japan’s Changing Security Environment:

Japan’s changing security environment has to be viewed from two different perspectives, namely the global perspective and the regional perspective. In terms of the global perspective, factors having a bearing on the East Asian regional security and that of Japan, need to be considered as under:

* United States as the uni-polar power and the predominant military power in East Asia, stands strategically distracted today from this region, due to its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

* United States is likely to be strategically tied down  in the Greater Middle East region for some years to come to ensure that the “civilisational war” threat  against USA of the Al Qaeda and Taliban is liquidated.

* United States may be strategically prepared to fight “two wars” at a time, but it has already been forced to withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from South Korea for Iraq.

* There could be a repeat of the above in relation to US forces stationed in Japan.

* Withdrawal of US forces from the region, if it becomes a sustained trend, would create a military vacuum in Japan’s security environment and add to other military uncertainties emerging in Japan’s neighbourhood.

* Such a vacuum could tempt China to flex its military muscle. 

In terms of Japan’s regional security environment, Japan’s security planners and decision-makers would have to take the following into account:

* China’s military modernization and up-gradation of her military capabilities continues unabated, despite no credible military threat to its security.

* China continues to build her nuclear weapons stockpile and her missile arsenal since it is not subject to any arms limitation agreements.

* North Korea has declared that it has nuclear weapons. An impoverished nation like North Korea could not have done so without China’s concurrence and assistance. Pakistan as China’s first nuclear weapons protégé has been used as Chinese proxy to build North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

* North Korea has launched intimidatory missile tests flights across Japan. Japan has been forced to declare that Japan in future may consider military pre-emptive strikes.

* In South Korea, growing anti-Americanism and pan-Korean nationalism may prompt the United States to withdraw US forces from the Korean peninsula. A process of relocation has already begun.

* Russia seems to be heading for resurgence in the Far East for multiple reasons including fears of a disproportionate Chinese military build-up. Large scale military exercise in Russia’s Far East have been revived.

* Islamic Jehadis with Al Qaeda links have crept up from South East Asia to Philippines and have now made their appearance in Japan with particular focus on targeting US military and naval bases in that country. 

In such a regional security environment, no indicators or trends are presently available which suggest that China has taken any initiatives towards any CBMs (confidence building measures) to arrest the strategic uncertainties or to restrain her “rogue states” allies, namely North Korea and Pakistan from joint nuclear weapons proliferation. 

Strategic analysts are also concerned that China threatens to resort to use of the military option against Taiwan. Such a contingency could draw Japan into the confrontation as the United States would prevent the use of force against Taiwan. 

Japan’s Strategic Choices for its National Security:

Japan’s military forces' numerical inferiority in the region is significantly off-set by its high-technology military machine. Japan’s armed forces are equipped with “cutting edge” technology armaments. Japan, also ranks as the second-largest after China in military spending in Asia (US $45.6 billion in 2000-2001). 

In earlier years, Russia used to figure as the highest threat in Japanese threat perspectives. Today, with Russia on a different trajectory, it would be fair to say that China and North Korea rightfully figure as the major threats to Japanese security in terms of military capabilities. China is a major nuclear weapons power and her protégé  North Korea has a few nuclear weapons with missiles capable of striking Japan. 

Japan’s military machine, despite its superior weaponry and prowess is not in a position to independently take on the threats to Japanese national security. Without even aiming to be a regional power, Japan needs to embark on a significant military build-up for her legitimate defence needs. 

To achieve the above Japan would have to make some very hard decisions to get out of the “peace rut” that has pervaded security thinking in Japan for over half a century. The following steps seem to be unavoidable:

* Amend Japanese Constitution to remove all restrictions which impede the expansion and roles of Japanese Armed Forces from full exercise of their legitimate functions both for domestic and external commitments.

* Motivation of the Japanese public, that against the backdrop of emerging strategic uncertainties, Japan has no other options, but to go in for a significant expansion of her armed forces.

* Japan’s exports of military equipment should be resorted to facilitate increased defence expenditure for armed forces expansion.

*  And, more significantly, Japan has to consider the imperatives for acquiring a nuclear weapons arsenal. 

This author had made out a case for Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in his SAAG Paper No.487 dated 05-07-2002 entitled “Japan’s Imperatives for Nuclear Weapons Arsenal”. The imperatives have become even more pressing in 2004. Japan would never have been subjected to a nuclear holocaust, if it had a nuclear deterrent. Today, Japan as the only country in North West Pacific without nuclear weapons, opens itself to political blackmail and coercion, endangering its national security. 

Standing at the strategic crossroads, Japan has three choices namely:

* Dispense with US-Japan Security Treaty and opt for an independent defence capability. (This would generate strategic concerns both with USA and in the region.)

* Modified version of above by seeking regional security alliances (No takers in the region)

* Maintain Treaty relationship with USA., but concurrently build up an independent defence capability. 

In terms of the path to a Japanese self-reliant defence capability,  the only option available under present circumstances is that of a mixed option of:

* Continuing with the United States-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. The value of such a commitment has never been challenged  so far in either country, notwithstanding changes in nuances at times.

* Concurrently, developing and working towards creation of Japan’s self-reliant defence capability. 

Materialization of latter should not be viewed by the United States as creation of a potential threat. The United States should actively encourage this process, as in the emerging strategic scenario of the 21st century where China intends to force out USA from the Pacific, Japan may be the only possible American ally in the region to restrain China. 

A mixed option as advocated above would be an incremental progress towards an independent Japanese self-reliant military capability. It would not also raise strategic hackles in the region if Japan were to have a clean break from its Mutual Security Treaty with the United States. 

Concluding Observations:

Japan is not only a major Asian power but also an economic superpower. Yet all this means nothing if it cannot add muscle power to its status in the form of strong military capabilities unshackled from any outdated constitutional restraints. 

Further, Japan is the only major Asian power which does not posses a nuclear weapons arsenal and which is an imperative as a deterrent to her three nuclear armed neighbours with unpredictable intentions. 

China has to look within, if it argues or contends that a militarily powerful Japan would be a security threat. A strong responsible and democratic Japan would provide regional countervailing power to China, and ensure regional stability. 

Finally, it would be illogical for Japan to contend that its “Peace Constitution”, would shield it from conventional or nuclear conflict or blackmail and coercion. This is strategically untenable. It is peaceful nations that invite aggression. Peaceful nations too need deterrence, especially when existing in a hostile neighborhood. In the emerging 21st century strategic environment in the Pacific, Japan needs deterrence most.   

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email drsubhashkapila