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More muscular China made change necessary

by Masami Ito

The new defense guideline calling for a drastic shift to the southwest is a necessary and natural move for Japan amid China’s growing military might and tougher diplomatic posture in the East China Sea, military analysts said.

The National Defense Guideline approved by the government Friday labels China “a matter of concern” and calls for a stronger defense around the remote Nansei Islands of southwestern Japan, including new deployments of Self-Defense Forces units.

The Nansei Islands refer to the chain that runs in an arc south of Kyushu and east of Taiwan, including Amami, Okinawa and the Senkaku islands.

“There is a deterrent effect and I think it sends out a big message to China,” said Takashi Kawakami, a securities expert and professor at Takushoku University.

Relations have been strained over a clash between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has control over the islets, but they are claimed by China and Taiwan.

Also of international concern is China’s rapidly growing defense budget, which has surged by double digits 21 years in a row.

“To stay on friendly terms with China, we need to hedge and engage China at the same time,” Kawakami said.

“Without firmly hedging around it, China will target a military vacuum just like (the former Soviet Union did) with the islands off Hokkaido.”

The guideline, which outlines defense policy for the next decade, introduces the “dynamic defense capability” concept of enabling the SDF to be ready, mobile and adaptable to defend Japan in new kinds of emergencies, including terrorism and attacks on remote islands.

“The future of (Japan’s) defense is not to rely on the traditional “basic defense force” that attaches importance on achieving deterrence by the ‘existence’ per se of defense capability,” the guideline says.

“What is needed is (a military) that can be active and mobile in further stabilizing the Asia-Pacific security environment and improving the global security situation.”

Kawakami said the dynamic defense capability is a major policy shift from the traditional basic defense force concept, which allows Japan to possess only the minimum necessary forces. Under the old concept, basic troops are deployed all across the country, although primary emphasis during the Cold War was defending Hokkaido from the Soviet Union.

“The shift from the basic defense structure to the dynamic defense capability was necessary,” Kawakami said. “(The revised guideline) has identified the current crisis or threat and tries to deal with it.”

Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, agrees that shifting defense policy toward China is a necessary step, but he pointed out that the North Korean threat is more immediate right now.

Nishikawa, a former defense official, said he believes the government is catering to growing public frustration with China’s recent hardline reactions over the Senkaku dispute.

“The situation in North Korea is extremely unstable and a crisis could break out on the Korean Peninsula,” Nishikawa said.

“If that were to happen, the area around the Sea of Japan will be exposed, not the Nansei Islands — and that is where the higher priority needs to be set.”

Some pundits, including Nishikawa, slammed the government for not relaxing the long-standing three-point ban on arms exports when revising the defense guideline.

The three principles prohibit weapons exports to communist states, countries subjected to a ban under U.N. resolutions and those engaged in international conflicts. They were set in 1967 under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and were later tightened into a de facto ban on arms exports.

During the Cold War, politicians long praised the ban as symbol of postwar pacifism, as Japan, unlike some developed countries, didn’t fuel overseas conflicts by providing weapons to any party in disputes.

But the ban also prohibits Japan’s defense industry from joining multinational joint development projects. Some experts are calling now for an end to the ban, saying otherwise the domestic military industry won’t be able to catch up on the latest technologies while curbing growing development costs of high-tech arms.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa had been keen on relaxing the ban, but the government gave it up after the Social Democratic Party, an opposition force, said it otherwise wouldn’t cooperate with the Democratic Party of Japan on the fiscal 2011 budget.

The DPJ doesn’t have a majority in the Upper House and needs the cooperation of opposition forces.

“Not only did the government fail to take appropriate measures to build public support on the issue by explaining it carefully . . . it caved in for the sake of political expediency,” Nishikawa said.