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.

The Empire of the Sun to test the Dragon

In fact, the complexity of relations with Beijing obliges Tokyo to look very closely at the increase in Chinese military spending. Several issues of friction, although they have not prevented the development of a growing economic interdependence between the two countries in recent years, have however made Sino-Japanese relations particularly sensitive and at risk of rapid deterioration.

First, there is the problem of historical memory and the Japanese colonial past. The memory of Japanese aggression in China is still strong, and often threatens to inflame a now growing Chinese nationalism, particularly in the absence of an admission of liability by Tokyo. Thus, for example, under Junichiro Koizumi’s government (LDP, 2001-2006), the decision of the former Japanese Prime Minister to make an annual visit to Yasukuni shrine – which houses the remains of the heroes of the Japanese imperial history, but also many war criminals – sparked lively popular protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in China and froze political relations between Tokyo and Beijing for the duration of the Koizumi administration.

Second, there is the territorial dispute over a group of islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by the Chinese. Located in the eastern China Sea, they are currently controlled by Japan but sovereignty over them is also claimed by Beijing (and Taiwan). Although, as stressed by Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo, control of this group of islands is not particularly relevant from a purely strategic point of view, their sovereignty is an issue of great symbolic, economic, political and historical importance. Since 1968, when oil prospectors found evidence of probable oil and gas deposits off the islands, periodic incidents there have caused some tense moments. These incidents did not degenerated into open conflicts thanks to the will of both parties not to unnecessarily stir up a violent military escalation. The last skirmish occurred in September 2010, when after a collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a reconnaissance ship from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) the Chinese boat captain was arrested and detained for more than two weeks, causing the most serious diplomatic incident between Tokyo and Beijing in recent years and unleashing harsh official protests from Beijing, with serious threats of economic and political reprisals. This episode was the last of the red flags which has contributed to an increase in Tokyo’s perception that China is demonstrating a growing assertiveness.

Accordingly, the Guidelines are unquestionably a supporting document Japan will use to react to China’s military rise. To overcome institutional limits and budget constraints affecting military expenditure, Tokyo proposes a qualitative change of strategy rather than an increase in the quantity of its armed forces. First, it establishes the principle of “dynamic” defense, which should enable the JSDF to react with greater mobility, flexibility and readiness to possible military contingencies. To this end, there will be attempts to purchase a new tactical transport aircraft, probably the C-2 Kawasaki, with a capacity almost four times greater than that of the old C-1.

In addition, Japan has long sought a jet fighter with stealth technology (a so-called “invisible” aircraft) to replace the American F-15 Eagle which is now technologically outdated, especially when compared to the Soviet SU27 (manufactured under license from Beijing). Tokyo has repeatedly expressed its intention to acquire the U.S. F22 – probably the most powerful and advanced fighter-bomber in production – although Washington does not seem willing to authorize its sale. Therefore, the addition of new armaments to the F-15 and F-2 is planned ,while the search for a new stealth jet fighter of Japanese manufacture continues. The capacity and mobility of Land Forces will be improved by the introduction of the new and advance main battle tank TK-X MBT, which is lighter and easier to carry. The creation of a committee within the Cabinet responsible for coordinating all the units of the JSDF has also been announced.

From the standpoint of ballistic defense, this year will see the final phase of the U.S.-Japan joint project for the installation of an advanced missile interception system on Japanese destroyers. This is currently the largest item in the defense budget. As for naval forces, the submarine fleet will increase from 16 to 22 units – a move unofficially announced two months before the publication of the Guidelines – with the aim of improving its ability to control the eastern China Sea, in what appears to be a clear response to Chinese naval activities.

Finally, it must be remembered that an increasing role is being given to the Japan Coast Guard, the protagonist in the last September incident and  a paramilitary force whose functions of monitoring and controlling the south-eastern seas have grown in recent years. It has many vehicles at its disposal and it acts almost as a second naval force.

More generally, it is noted in several parts of the Guidelines that there is a need to strengthen the Japanese military projection capability in south-west Asia and to change the structure of Japan’s Cold War era Armed Forces. The latter have to respond with more incisiveness to the challenges of the combustible region of East Asia, where the rise of China represents, at least in the eyes of Japanese strategists, the most serious threat in the long run. This, along with other major causes of regional instability such as the issues of North Korea and Taiwan and the uncertain role of U.S. leadership in the near future, has helped to nurture a sense that Japan is being encircled and has made Tokyo aware of the need to reconsider its international posture and defensive strategy.

In the final analysis, however, the Guidelines are a mostly symbolic step to boosting Japan’s security and defense. The deterrence effect of the new NDPG may be minimal. The announcement made by Naoto Kan on January 6, 2011 that he wants to set up a committee of experts to mend relations with China shows that if the two East Asian most powerful states manage to contain their excesses of nationalism and territorial aspiration, the high degree of economic interdependence between the two countries will make open Sino-Japanese military confrontation very unlikely, at least in the mid-term.