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Japan’s Revised Defence Guidelines: Proactive Dynamism Pervades “Reluctant Realism”

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 27, 2010

    Japan unveiled the plan of its revised National Defence Program Guidelines on December 17, 2010 which is markedly sweeping in its focus and potentially a precursor for a new arms race in Northeast Asia, a region already plagued with heightened tensions on account of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and a battery of provocative incidents culminating in the recent skirmishes on Yeonpyeong island. Japan’s announcement of its new security arrangements with reference to China as the adversary is an unequivocal doctrinal departure in Japan’s reckoning of its threat perceptions that were based on the Cold War assumption of an invasion by the erstwhile Soviet Union and underscored the guarding of Hokkaido and other northern regions. The most prominent change is the shift in accentuating the defence of the Nansei Islands, a collection of islands that make up the Okinawa prefecture located at the southernmost end of the Japanese archipelago. According to Japan’s vice defence minister, Jun Azumi “Our attention was on the north during the Cold War, but we have to shift our focus to the defence of the southwest. ... The most important step to strengthen our defence over the next 10 years is to secure the mobility (of our troops).”

    To safeguard these islands, a coastal monitoring unit of the Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF) will be deployed along with the stationing of troops on a number of islands in the area. Japan plans to deploy Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor missiles on the main Okinawa island to counter North Korean missiles and accelerate the development work on Aegis, the US led sea-based system to protect ships and troops from ballistic missile attack. According to Ashley Tellis, a more robust Japanese missile defence system will prove to be a real threat to China’s military clout because it largely relies on its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to offset the technological weaknesses of its armed forces. If Japan’s military modernization continues unhindered, the volatile Northeast Asian region would witness a renewed arms race. It will compel both China and South Korea to keep up with the new military investments of Japan.

    China had no qualms in admonishing Japan as “irresponsible” for casting Chinese policy measures in East Asia as a “matter of concern for the regional and international security.” Yang Bojiang, the director of Japanese studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told Global Times that “Japan won't be happy with the result of hyping the alleged China-threat, as deteriorated relations with Beijing bring no benefit to the country as it is still recovering from the financial crisis.” A little introspection of China’s own behaviour would amply reveal that its disobliging and confrontational posture has provided a more than an expedient pretext for Japan to move away from its post-World War II hesitation in adopting a more muscular defence policy, which has been aptly described as “reluctant realism” by Michael J. Green. Now, Japan appears to be determined to alter the trajectory of its security policy as seen in its adoption of the new concept of national security called “dynamic defence capability” which envisions the Self-Defence Forces to be better prepared, mobile and flexible to address security concerns by improving its early warning and surveillance capabilities, particularly surveillance of the waters surrounding Japan. To effect the precepts of this defence dynamism, Japan seeks to beget the integration of the chains of command for the three branches of GSDF, MSDF and the Air Self-Defence Forces to render them with a high degree of mobility and cooperation. These plans indicate a marked degree of proactive dynamism in Japan’s defensive defence strategy but they also show an ostensible progression of the way in which Japan is equipping itself with the assets of hard power in its attempt to put in place a more vigorous self-dependent defence mechanism that is not wholly dependent on the United States.

    The new found candour in Japan’s latest defence program is but only an upshot of China’s own unbridled belligerent behaviour, most apparent in the wrangle over Japan's arrest of Zhan Qixiong, the Chinese captain of a trawler which allegedly slammed deliberately into two Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels on September 7, 2010 near the Senkaku/Diaoyo Islands, following which China not only demanded an apology and compensation from Japan for the incident but also cut-off ministerial-level contacts between the two countries. After the release of the Chinese captain on September 25, 2010, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a categorical statement reiterating its “indisputable” sovereignty over the contested islands, presently controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan. Subsequently, China resorted to devious means of stopping the shipments of rare earth exports to Japan and later extended the ban even to the United States. China has a 95 per cent share of the market in rare earth minerals which are essential metals used in superconductors, computers, hybrid electric cars and high-tech products including guided missiles.

    By alienating Japan, at a time when its relations with the United States were in rough water, China has most naively brought about a convergence in how the US and Japan view China’s growing military capabilities, precisely as a threat to the balance of power in the region. China’s coercive diplomacy in the East China Sea and the South China Sea has made both the United States and Japan deeply anxious about its actual intentions in a milieu of China’s meteoric economic rise in conjunction with its military enhancements and ambitious mission of acquiring the wherewithal of extended-range power projection potential. The 2010 US Quadrennial Defence Review Report had noted that “China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons, increasingly capable long-range air defence systems, electronic warfare and computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircraft, and counter-space systems.” In a report to the US Congress released on August 16, 2010 regarding the military and security developments of China, it was stated that the “limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.” According to the State Oceanic Administration report, China's first indigenous aircraft carrier will be ready in 2014 and will be launched in 2015.

    China has, in fact, unwittingly bestowed the much needed legitimacy to Japan to undertake fundamental changes in its defence policy. In this, China had erred in its strategic calculations that the manner in which it asserted its geopolitical interests would not only strike a note of its arrival at the helm of regional politics, wherein it could challenge the long established norm of US presence in the waters and zones of its power pursuit, but that it is bound to have significant repercussions too. The main issue to ponder over is whether China’s strategic error in inviting Japanese hostility would place more blocks to its rise as an unchallenged regional power or would China be able to override the Japanese threat in ample measure by altering its strategic game in finding a meeting ground with the United States. Japan would remember that it was left uninformed about the 1972 Sino-US détente and it would be in the larger interest of Japan to cautiously tread on its proactive defence dynamism lest it finds itself marginalized given the memory of its past atrocities inflicted upon China and the Korean peninsula and which are deeply embedded in the psyche of the Chinese and the Koreans alike.