In the new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), published by the Japanese Ministry of Defense on December 17, 2010, Tokyo gave voice – for the first time explicitly – to its military anxieties about the regional and global rise of China, thus prompting the predictable reaction from Beijing and sparking a lively debate about the true purpose of the document. Through the newspaper Global Times, China has accused Tokyo of inventing “imaginary enemy” to justify its attempt to revive itself as a military power and offset a long and debilitating economic stagnation, in the aftermath of the historic event of China’s GDP overtaking Japan’s.

Japanese policy to cope with the “China threat”

Japanese MilitaryThe Japanese Ministry of Defense expressed concern in the NDPG, notably about the consequences of the double-digit increases in Chinese military spending, the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) already well underway, and Chinese commercial activity in the east of the China Sea, particularly around Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, whose sovereignty has long been claimed by both countries. Japanese statements are particularly significant when one takes into consideration that Japan’s attitude towards contemporary China, the Maoist era, and the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping had been driven (at least on paper) by a policy of engagement with Beijing through bilateral consultations and in multilateral forums, including dialogue on economic cooperation and regional security. It is also significant that the document was written during the period of the last Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) government – the traditional party which governed the country uninterruptedly from post-WWII until 2009 – but then paradoxically approved by a government led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a political force traditionally hostile to militarism and in favor of a “soft” line towards Beijing.

Security issues and foreign policy, however, are extremely important domestic issues in Japan, even under the DPJ leadership. The previous Hatoyama government, which ruled between September 16, 2009 and June 2, 2010, fell because the former Prime Minister was “guilty” of not fulfilling the promise made at election time to remove the unpopular U.S. military base at Futenma Island off Okinawa. The current government, also led by the DPJ, has already undergone two reshuffles, the last of which was a response to demands by some Liberal MPs for the resignations of Yoshito Sengoku, Chief Cabinet Secretary, and Sumio Mabuchi, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, over issues in relations with China and in particular the aforementioned dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This has clearly shown those at the top of the DJP, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the necessity of managing and defending Japanese foreign policy and prerogatives, particularly the complex and delicate relations with the United States and China, more vigorously.

The U.S. military shield and the Japanese “pacifist” constitution

Several analysts have highlighted how the new Japanese strategy represents a significant de facto declaration of intent to take greater responsibility, alongside the U.S., in redefining the regional balance which has been disturbed by the relative decline of Washington and the emergence of new powers, especially China.

Several institutional and psychological barriers, however, have strongly limited the freedom of action of Japanese politicians in matters of defense and security. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, imposed by the United States on a defeated and humiliated country immediately after World War II, says that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”.

The defense budget also never exceeds the psychological threshold of 1% of GDP, and any attempt by previous governments to increase it, even if only symbolically, has been systematically frustrated by strong opposition in parliament and public opinion.

These obstacles have resulted in a defense policy strongly dependent on the U.S. military shield, depriving the Japanese Armed Forces (Japan Self-Defense Forces, JSDF) – which are often described as being among the best equipped in the world – of the necessary financial and political support which would enable them to defend their own country. This military shield provided by the U.S. has allowed Japan to focus exclusively on development and economic growth, but has devolved to the U.S. the main functions of its defense, making Tokyo the main U.S. ally in East Asia. However, since the dissolution of the USSR, and even more so after Sept. 11, the huge costs – in financial terms, but also and above all, in human lives – of the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the complex post-Cold War situation have persuaded the Washington that its historic allies need to share at least part of the burden of their own security in facing the challenges of the new century. Thinking back to the time when he cooperated with the Pentagon to draw up the 1995 East Asian Strategy Report, the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye remembers how the process began “with the consideration that there were three major powers in the region – the U.S., Japan and China – and that, by maintaining our alliance with Japan, we would model the environment in which China would emerge.” Thus, Washington has insisted in recent years that Tokyo play a more active part in ensuring regional security, so that it can act as a medium to long term deterrent against the risk of a more assertive posture by China, this over and above making a meaningful financial contribution to international institutions (which is already significant when one considers that Japan does, for example, support up to 20% of UN workers) and increasing its direct military involvement in international peacekeeping missions.

For its part, Tokyo is aware of the need to go beyond the ultra-pacifism of Article 9 of the country’s constitution and move towards a “normalization” of its military status for a number of reasons.

Although the Hatoyama government failed in part due to it having too strict an alliance with the U.S., as noted above, the DPJ’s Naoto Kan must have considered it politically and strategically unavoidable to align itself with Washington’s new strategic vision. However, as noted by Christopher Hughes in a 2009 article published in International Affairs, strengthening security ties with Washington presents Japan with a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, Tokyo could become unwillingly involved in a possible conflict between the U.S. and China over issues such as Taiwan or Korean peninsula. That is why the new Guidelines states that the principle of contingency, or a case by case assessment of military operations, will decide whether the JSFD will be used to help its ally. On the other hand, there is a perceived risk in Tokyo that the United States might come to consider that its national interests are better served by developing more ties with a rising China that in persevering with its traditional alliance with a Japan in permanent economic stagnation.

The collapse of the alliance on which hinges the whole Japanese security policy would be fatally damaging to Tokyo. Perhaps in an attempt to free herself from this dilemma, the new Guidelines clearly recognize that the security of the country should be primarily secured by its own efforts and resources. Reconfiguring its defensive strategy, beginning with the modernization and reorganization of its armed forces, is therefore the first step towards lessening dependence on the U.S. and, not least, the first concrete response to the rapid rise of China’s military capacity.