Bayonets belonging to the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
Bayonets belonging to the Japanese Self-Defense Force are seen in front of Japan's rising sun flag, which is used by the forces, October 2013.
Issei Kato / Courtesy Reuters

Last month, as the world focused on China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea and its unveiling of political and military reforms after its Third Plenum, Japan was busy, too. In mid-December, Tokyo released a host of defense and security reforms aimed at reconfiguring Japan’s security posture, including new National Defense Program Guidelines (NPDG), the establishment of a new U.S.-style national security council, and further progress toward reinterpreting the role of its military, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). With these reforms, Japan has created its first-ever national security strategy, for a time when Japan is “confronted by complex and grave national security challenges.”   

The specifics of the new national security strategy should not be surprising to those familiar with the region. Nevertheless, the document received bristling reviews. China’s defense ministry quickly released a statement decrying Japan’s attempts to “create regional tension and roil the regional situation.” South Korea called on Tokyo to remove any references to its claim on the Dokdo Islands (known as the Takeshima Islands in Japan), which both countries claim. The international press, meanwhile, bemoaned Japan’s shot across the bow at China. The Economist opined that the reforms “heighten already acute tensions.” Even Asahi Shimbun, the liberal Japanese paper, fretted that conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy “undermines Japan’s postwar pacifism.”

Abe’s unwise decision in late December to visit the Yasukuni Shrine—a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead from a wide range of conflicts, from the Satsuma rebellion to World War II—made matters worse. Earlier this week, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom slammed Abe’s trip to Yasukuni and stressed that “Mr. Abe has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord among Asia-Pacific nations, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism.” Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor at Australian National University, argued that the visit serves as a vindication for Abe’s critics, proving that “this time round, he has come back with a determination to stamp his mark on history and to push through his long-cherished right-wing agenda.” Still, although the international community was right to condemn the visit, it would be a mistake to conflate Abe’s personal convictions on history with Japan’s recent military rearmament.


It is true that Japan’s evolving strategy is predominantly focused on China. As the new security strategy guidelines note, “China has been rapidly advancing its military capabilities in a wide range of areas through its continued increase in its military budget without sufficient transparency.” The document also chides Beijing for its aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas, insisting that they are “incompatible with the existing order of international law.” Similarly, Japan’s NPDG has been partially reshaped to address Chinese actions around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and bolster the SDF’s ability to defend its administration of the territory. The urgency with which the NPDG was updated (the last version was only a few years old) has prompted some to conclude that Abe wants to ramp up the high-stakes brinksmanship with Beijing around the East China Sea.

It is also true that, within the past year, Chinese-Japanese ties have dramatically (although incrementally) worsened as a result of their toxic dispute in the East China Sea, which Beijing insists is Tokyo’s fault. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that some view Japan’s new national security strategy as a reactive measure aimed at checking Beijing and further developing the reach of the SDF. But there are four major flaws in such interpretations.

First, the recent defense reforms—including increased budgets, centralized security command structures, and more flexibility for the SDF—have been topics of discussion in both Tokyo and Washington. During the recent tenure of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), from 2009 to 2012, both Japan and the United States repeatedly explored ways to reorient the SDF and reinvigorate the alliance with more equitable burden sharing. In fact, the drafting of the latest NPDG was done largely under the watch of former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, a staunch supporter of stronger ties with Beijing. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that it was really the 2010 NPDG that shifted Japan’s defense doctrine. That reform moved the country away from a reactive and basic defense concept towards an approach called “dynamic defense,” which essentially advocates for a proactive, flexible, and highly mobile SDF. The 2010 NPDG also reflected an altered calculus that prioritized advanced technologies, intelligence and surveillance capacities, and amphibious warfare procurement. In short, the latest NPDG is largely overhyped. It only builds on the concepts put forth by the DPJ-led government a few years ago.

A second misconception is that Japan is on the cusp of a historic rearmament of its military. Indeed, the Abe government has approved considerable increases in military spending (nearly three percent per annum for the next five years). However, the lion’s share of these costs will be eaten up by salary dollars for SDF personnel and by paying for the transfer of U.S. Marines from the controversial Futenma base to a different location in Okinawa. Another big chunk (nearly $1 billion) will go to the long-planned purchase of four F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States and the subsequent training of their pilots. These procurement plans were announced years before Sino-Japanese ties took a nosedive. In fact, the elements of the strategy most aimed at China are the planned acquisition in the next few years of Global Hawk surveillance drones, amphibious vehicles, and Osprey transport aircraft, which Japan will use for deterrence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But the price tag for those is relatively cheap.

A third flaw in the “China realignment” argument is that, despite Abe’s hard line on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Tokyo and Beijing remain deeply integrated. China is still Japan’s largest trading partner, and the two are actively negotiating a trilateral free-trade agreement with South Korea, despite frigid political ties at the leadership level. Moreover, China relies on Japan’s production of the high-tech components that go into many of its exports. As the economist Richard Katz aptly wrote earlier this year, the two are committed to “mutually assured production.” Japan’s decision to bolster its defense posture should not be confused with going all-in on containment. And that is clear from the document itself, which notes that “stable relations between Japan and China are an essential factor for peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region,” and that Japan will “strive to construct and enhance a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests with China in all areas, including politics, economy, finance, security, culture, and personal exchanges.” Even on the East China Sea issue, the strategy is hardly escalatory. It recommends “establishing a framework [with China] to avert or prevent unexpected situations.”

Fourth, observers must remember that Japan’s national security does not rise and fall with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It has other concerns: North Korea, for example, remains volatile under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Tokyo, along with Washington and Seoul, must prepare for conflict or even regime collapse in Pyongyang. The strategy highlights North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and “continued attempts to miniaturize nuclear weapons for warheads.” It also calls on Japan to strengthen its protection of nationals both at home and abroad from terrorism and transnational crime, a reference to the Abe government’s frustrated response to the hostage-taking of dozens of its citizens in Algeria last year.  


Another final element of the new national defense strategy that caught notice was Abe’s creation of an Advisory Panel on Collective Self-Defense, which is tasked with considering whether the government should reinterpret Japan’s constitutional ban on engaging in collective self-defense activities. (This is a right that all states maintain through the United Nations Charter but that Japan has placed a moratorium on since the end of World War II.) The panel has tabled draft proposals that recommend reinterpreting the constitution and has looked to assure Japan’s neighbors—especially China and South Korea—that any reinterpretation would not signal a rebirth of Japan’s militaristic past. The most recent draft even limits the scope of collective self-defense to include retaliation for armed attacks on Japan when there are no other appropriate means to take and when any actions taken in exercising the right are the minimum necessary. The United States should be happy about these potential changes. It has long looked askance at the fact that Tokyo is effectively prohibited from responding to a third-party attack on allies. For example, under the current interpretation, if North Korea were to fire a ballistic missile over Japanese airspace toward the U.S. mainland, Tokyo would be unable to do anything.

Japan’s new defense doctrine will also transcend hard security areas in order to encompass a stronger role for the SDF in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. It is important to stress that the SDF’s modernization and potential new mandate will remain largely defensive in the East China Sea while becoming proactive on soft security issues. Abe has stressed that the SDF should embark on a new role of promoting “proactive pacifism,” which would promote missions that improve the public good. One example was the SDF’s assistance mission in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Japan deployed more than a thousand SDF personnel aboard three naval vessels, which also carried helicopters and significant food and medical cargo to assist Filipinos in remote areas.

In other words, much of the alarmism over Japan’s supposed national security tilt is misplaced. Abe’s provocative visit to Yasukuni Shrine was unhelpful and will be detrimental to Japan’s ties with its neighbors. Despite this, Tokyo’s security reforms should not be confused with Abe’s personal views. The new strategy and national security council are essential for instant and critical national security decisions on a range of issues, not just Beijing. A balanced interpretation must not dwell only on Abe’s personal views but also take into account Japan’s security environment, its role as the United States’ prime ally in the region, and its ability to become a positive agent in promoting security in the Asia-Pacific.

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