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Japan's New Defence Policy: A Shift from the Past?

Rahul Prakash
28 December 2010

Japan announced its new military policy changes on 17 December, 2010 amidst escalating tensions, particularly in Northeast Asia. In a major military policy shift, Tokyo has announced its new National Defense Programme Guidelines (NDPG), calling for a shift of forces from the northern islands of Hokkaido, stationed to counter “threat from Soviet Union” during the Cold War period, towards the southern islands around Okinawa, focused towards China. According to the new document, Japan plans to increase the current number of submarines from 16 to 22; strengthen the AEGIS destroyer fleet from 4 to 6, along with the placement of Patriot missile batteries across the country, increase its naval capabilities to counter rising Chinese presence in the region. There are also plans to equip the Self Defense Forces (SDFs) with early warning systems and advanced surveillance equipment for monitoring the Japanese waters. The new guidelines also called for increased military cooperation with U.S., South Korea, Australia and India.

The new concept, called “dynamic defense force” ? changed from the earlier the “Basic Defense Force” concept ? aims to make Japan’s SDF troops more ready, mobile and flexible to address modern-day security concerns. This shift in policy can be termed as a major step as Japan has mostly restricted its military development mainly due to the Post-World War II Constitution (Article 9), which renounces war as sovereign right of the Japanese nation. However, there have been rising calls in the recent years for amending the constitution to face contemporary realities, although no political party has yet shown the will to go ahead with the amendment of Article 9 fearing uncertain public reaction.

While there is growing number of challenges to Japanese security, two factors ? Chinese military adventurism close to Japanese waters and the recent North Korean actions ? appear to be driving the changes in Tokyo’s defence policy.

The Chinese navy’s visibly growing presence near Japanese waters has caused some serious concern for the Japanese military strategists lately. In April 2010, there was an incident where a Chinese helicopter came within 100 meters of a Japanese surveillance ship while monitoring a Chinese naval exercise. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) ambition to induct an aircraft carrier also emphasizes Chinese plans to increase its off-shore operational capability, which raises security issues for Japan. Should China acquire an aircraft carrier, Japan would have to rethink its stance of considering an aircraft carrier as an “offensive” weapon. “Insufficient transparency” in Chinese military affairs remains a cause of concern for Japan and in the light of such events, China is now being perceived as a threat by the Japanese government.

The recent incident near the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) (when the captain and crew of a Chinese fishing trawler were detained after their boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels patrolling the area) led to a diplomatic stand off between the two countries. Japan released the detained crew and the captain only after China took some hard steps in retaliation (halting the export of rare earth metals to Japan). The manner in which the crisis ended might have led the Japanese government to rethink its policies, in dealing with the growing Chinese military power.

North Korea too has posed serious issues for Japan. Since the Yeonpyeong shelling incident, war clouds have been looming over the Korean Peninsula. The incident escalated the tensions, and the chances of a conflict after an aggressive stance taken by North Korea (DPRK) cannot be ruled out. The new policy is aimed at protecting the Japanese interests in the event of a Korean War, going beyond the peninsula to affect the larger interests of the region. Moreover, the revelations by Stanford Professor Siegfried S. Hecker about the sophistication with which the DPRK is pursuing its nuclear programme could have been an added reason for the military policy restructuring in Japan.

Although Japan’s alliance with the U.S. remains the backbone of Japanese security, there were recent reports indicating a rift between the two countries. The pullback of troops from the Okinawa base to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam was one of such issues when the alliance came under pressure. There are questions raised in Japan about a situation wherein U.S. may not be able to guarantee Japanese security. This could have very well been a strong reason why the NDPG aims at making the Japanese Self Defense Forces capable of “dynamic defense.” In essence, while Japan continues to be under the security blanket of the United States, they would like to get more ownership of the security, particularly as it relates to responding to a crisis. For instance, if there is a missile fired from North Korea, Japan does not have the luxury of waiting to get back to the US for an appropriate response.

Japanese security concerns about China appear similar to what India has been dealing with recently. China has territorial disputes with both the countries, for which the existing mechanisms do not seem to be making any progress. Nonetheless, China is the biggest trading partner for both Japan and India. Under such circumstances, increasing cooperation between both New Delhi and Tokyo can be a good strategic move to thwart Chinese influence, be it on the borders, territorial waters or in the Indian Ocean Region, which is again of great importance to both India and Japan. Indo-Japanese military cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain, could compel Beijing to mend its aggressive stance which would benefit not only both the nations but also the region.

It would be interesting to see how far Japan’s policy restructure would change the strategic balance in Asia.

(Rahul Prakash is an intern at Observer Research Foundation, working on Asian security issues)

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