The notion that Japan’s defence policy is becoming increasingly assertive in the face of a rising China is gaining traction in Western media and some elite circles. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promotes the ‘normalisation’ of Japan’s foreign and security policy, including a change of the pacifist constitution and exercising the right of collective self-defence. For the first time in 11 years, Japan’s defence budget increased in 2013. As well, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) has intensified joint exercises with the US; most recently simulating retaking an occupied offshore island during Dawn Blitz 2013, a major US-led amphibious exercise off the coast of Southern California. Finally, at the end of this year the government will adopt new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). Analysts speculated that the new guidelines might bring Japan closer to even developing a ‘pre-emptive strike’ capability, particularly after Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera publicly claimed that Japan had ‘the right to develop the ability to make a pre-emptive strike against an imminent attack’.
Undoubtedly, Tokyo is deeply worried about China’s strategic trajectory and PLA Navy activities around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). ASPI’s recent ‘1.5 track dialogue’ with Japanese think-tank analysts and officials in Tokyo (conducted in cooperation with the Japan Institute for International Affairs) confirmed the strong focus on China’s ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ threat and a desire on the Japanese behalf for a more proactive defence policy, including participation in the emerging US ‘AirSea Battle’ concept and adopting a ‘offensive defence’ posture (without specifying what that meant).
But it’s important to keep things in perspective. In fact, what’s happening in Tokyo’s current defence policy is more the result of a long-term development, rather than sweeping changes. And it’s not clear that the money’s there for a growing wish list of military capabilities.
The 2010 NDPG of the previous Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government already introduced key conceptual changes such as the ‘Dynamic Defense’ concept which aims to make the SDF more agile and rapidly deployable. The aim of being able to defend Japan’s southwestern islands goes even further back to 2004; only now is it finally being underpinned by a stronger amphibious capability, as well as enhanced ISR and air combat capability. In fact, the 2010 document is in such high regard with Japanese analysts and defence officials, that the Abe government has been at pains to justify why a new NDPG is needed. It’s more to do with domestic politics than a drastically changed strategic environment, which is the key justification provided by the government.
Moreover, major changes in Japan’s defence policy will probably come from further strengthening the US alliance in areas such as ballistic and cruise missile defence, joint ISR and integrating existing forces into an ‘AirSea Battle’ framework. Both sides are currently working on revising the 1997 Guidelines for Japan–U.S. Defense Cooperation, which will probably further increase operational cooperation. As for the Japanese pre-emptive ‘strike capability’, there’s much more rhetoric than hard reality. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposal for the new NDPG only talks about ‘starting considerations of possessing strike capability under appropriate US–Japan role sharing’, a very vague formulation. There’s also no indication that the SDF is seriously considering the acquisition of land- or sea-based missiles for strategic strike. And Japan has decided to acquire the conventional take-off and landing variant of its new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) combat aircraft; making the emergence of a ‘tactical’ Japanese carrier for offensive strike an even more distant possibility. Indeed, as long as Japan remains comfortable under the US security umbrella it’s unclear what the SDF would gain from a capability which would only further complicate its strategic relationship with China.
Finally, unless ‘Abenomics’ pulls the country out of its dire economic predicament, the gap between ambitious defence programs and financial means will remain significant. The 2013 Defence Budget shows that the hype about this year’s rise failed to recognise at least two key points. This chart shows that defence spending is still nowhere near where it was in previous years:
And it’s unclear that this unhappy situation will be rectified anytime soon. Secondly, a breakdown of the budget shows that while more money was spend on new aircraft (partly to replace fighters lost during the 2011 earthquake), shipbuilding actually experienced a decline. Already, the Navy is pessimistic about its ability to maintain the current fleet built around 48 destroyers, given the ever rising unit costs of modern warships. The result could be a shrinking Japanese Navy, and planners have started to talk about smaller, more cost effective platforms such as the US Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
In sum, while lots of ink is spilled on Japan’s new military assertiveness the reality is far more subtle. Most likely, the upcoming NDPG will confirm incremental rather than revolutionary defence policy changes.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.