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Paper 1121                                                    17.09.2004

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations: 

Japan for over half a century has conscientiously followed pacifist policies. It has done so even at the cost of de-emphasising its legitimate security requirements. 

Emphasising that it had no military ambitions, Japan’s Army, Navy and Air Force were designated as Ground Self-Defense Forces, Maritime Self Defense Forces and Air Self-Defense Forces. The emphasis on “Self Defense” designation may have been appropriate in the immediate post- World War II period when Japan’s security was the sole responsibility of the United States. 

Japan’s above approaches to security and designations of its armed forces were necessitated contextually by the following factors:       

·        Japan’s Peace Constitution of 1947, at United States instance, and in particular Article 9 renouncing war as an option.

·        Need to live down Japan’s military role in World War II.

·        Japan’s revulsion of war borne out of its traumatic and horrific experience of being subjected to atomic bombing twice by the United States in the closing stages of World War II i.e. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

·        The need for economic reconstruction and revival  so as to rise from the ashes of destruction without being distracted by Cold War compulsions. The Korean War broke out in Japan’s vicinity at the same time as part of Cold War rivalries. 

More than half a century later, Japan today stands out as an economic super power (despite the recent recession). The end of the Cold War did not bring any peace dividends to Japan’s neighborhood. Japan today stands faced with critical security challenges and the imperatives arising from these demand that Japan reviews its national security policies and attitudes to military matters in keeping with contemporary strategic realities. 

Japan, it seems, has at long last, now seems to be engaged in tentative steps towards more assertive approaches in enhancing its military profile. 

But first a look at some international and regional strategic factors generating this change. 

Japan’s International Aspirations Need an Assertive Military Profile

Japan’s economic superpower strengths and its economic diplomacy through the world’s largest Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) programme has endowed it with considerable political influence. However, Japan slowly seems to be realizing that economic strength and political influence, by themselves, do not contribute fully to Japan’s status in the international hierarchy or to Japan's security..

More than a self-recognition by Japan itself, this strategic reality is being foisted on Japan by the advanced industrialized democracies of the world. Ironically, the United States which imposed a Peace Constitution on Japan and at stages wanted to cap Japanese military power, now most vehemently desires that Japan acquires a more assertive profile. 

Japan rightfully has an international aspiration to be a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. The observations of the United States officials on this account are noteworthy: 

·        Secretary of State, Colin Powell has called on Japan to examine renouncing Article 9 (war renouncing) of the Peace Constitution, if it wants the UNSC seat.

·        Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage has gone on record to state that a nation wishing  to sit on a permanent seat in UNSC must be ready to deploy military forces in  the interests of the international community.

While initial reactions to the above in Japan have been to the contrary, but then these are initial reactions only. Japan’s political leaders would first like to prepare the Japanese public. In this process, they could possibly be helped by the fast emerging complex strategic environment. 

North Korea’s missile tests over Japan, in the recent past, have already generated a change in Japanese public opinion on security issues. 

Japan’s review of the Peace Constitution can therefore be foreseen in light of the above. 

Japan’s Regional Security Environment Demands Assertive Military Profile

  The Cold War seems not to have ended in East Asia. A new Cold War has followed or is emerging in the region between China and the United States, with Russia as an uncertain strategic entity. 

Strategic regional realities which demand an assertive military profile can be said to be: 

·        China’s propensity to generate military conflict over Taiwan with nuclear weapons overtones. Japan has security commitments to USA in the event of regional conflict.

·        North Korea’s military adventurism fuelled by her Pakistan-facilitated nuclear weapons and China aided missile arsenal.

·         Japan’s outstanding territorial disputes with China.

·        China’s increasing naval forays including intrusions of Chinese Navy submarines in Japanese waters.

·        Russia’s territorial disputes with Japan also cause security concerns.

·        United States global security concerns and commitments dilute the American security umbrella for Japan. This entails a greater assertive military profile by Japan. 

Increasingly it looks that even for legitimate “self defense” needs, Japan will have to adopt a more assertive military profile. 

Japan’s Tentative Steps Towards an Assertive Military Profile: 

Some tentative steps taken or being taken by Japan towards the above end have emerged as follows: 

·        Japanese troops dispatch to Iraq to support United States military operations.

·        Creation of Rapid Reaction Force for international commitments.

·        Acceleration of Ballistic Missile Defense programme.

·        Easing ban on arms exports.

·        Beefing up defences for unpredictable threats.

·        Doubling of Japan’s Air Force Air Refueling Fleet. 

For external observers, all of the above steps, may at first glance, appear insignificant. They may like to argue that these do not suggest any moves towards an assertive military profile. But when viewed against the prevailing sentiments and attitudes in Japan towards security issues, all these steps are significant. They mark a change in direction. 

These are discussed below in a little more detail. 

Japan’s Troops in Operational Mission in Iraq.

 Japan in the last few years has passed special laws to make possible the dispatch of Navy ships to assist the US Navy fleet in the Indian Ocean and also logistic support for the US military intervention in Afghanistan. 

In the early months of 2004, Japan sent 500 troops to Iraq to assist the US armed forces there to rebuild Iraq. As The Economist, July 10th 2004 puts it: “Deploying them was a giant step historically, and not just because the force is sizeable and the theatre is dangerous. For the first time since the Second World War, Japan has sent its soldiers abroad without the moral comfort of an international mandate.”   

It is therefore a significant step for Japan.

Modification of Laws for Overseas Deployments and Creation of a Rapid Reaction Force for International Commitments:

As per Japanese laws, the primary duties of its armed forces are (1) Defence of the nation and (2) Maintaining public order and disaster management. 

A panel has now been set up to review this law to incorporate “overseas deployment” of armed forces also as a primary duty. Peace keeping operations under the UN so far were classified as auxiliary or incidental duties where weapons were not to be used except for self-defence. 

A review of the law could get over the present limitations including use of weapons. 

Japan is also considering setting up two battalion-sized groups as rapid reaction forces for prompt participation in international missions. 

Acceleration of Ballistic Missile Defence Programme (BMD)

Japan’s latest White Paper on Defense has called for acceleration of the BMD programme. 

Japan has also shown increased interest in the PATRIOT  PA3 missile defence systems from USA. 

In a related development Japan is jointly studying with USA  for upgrading the AEGIS missile defence systems installed on Japanese Navy ships. These upgradations would facilitate ballistic missile interception at sea by such systems installed on ships. 

The Japanese civilian sector technological expertise is expected to be co-opted in this exercise along with United States contractors. 

Arms Export Ban Likely to be Eased

Japan’s official defence circles have called for review of the Japanese laws that ban Japanese arms exports and also joint development of weapon systems with countries other than the United States and also of weapons other than joint missile systems. 

It seems that the proposal is being actively examined in Japan’s governmental circles. 

Beefing-Up Defences for Unpredictable Threats

Japan has not been complacent in terms of dealing with unpredictable threats arising from the current security threats from asymmetric warfare, terrorism, hostage taking and other terror threats. 

It is believed that specialized troops have been organized and trained and equipped for missions which may even require overseas operations to protect Japanese citizens or interests. 

Doubling of Japanese Air Force Air Refueling Fleet

In a significant move plans are afoot to double the fleet of Japanese Air Force ‘Air Refueling Fleet’ from four to eight. This will considerably  increase the surveillance and interdiction capabilities of Japanese Air Force of the Western Pacific Ocean towards the Straits of Malacca. Japan’s vital sea lanes run virtually parallel to the Chinese coastline and are vulnerable. 

Concluding Observations:

Japan as a prominent economic and political player on the global scene needs to have the military wherewithal not only to protect her national security interests, but also to contribute militarily to the international community’s efforts to maintain global peace and stability. 

Japan does not owe any apologies to any nation, least of all China, for adopting a more assertive military profile. China has been in the forefront of opposition to Japan’s military build up, forgetting that it is China’s own military up-gradation and propensity to use force in disputes which would ultimately propel Japan becoming a significant military power. 

Other than China, no other nation perceives Japan as a military threat in the making. For an effective balance of power in East Asia, the military build up of Japan is an imperative of regional and international security.

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