Japan’s response to threats

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The appearance of a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine in Japanese coastal waters Nov. 10 underlined a potential threat to Japanese security.

The continuing failure of North Korean authorities to take part in “six-party talks” aimed at reaching an agreement that halts their nuclear-weapons development highlights another potential threat.

Meanwhile, the use of the Self-Defense Forces in Iraq, even if limited to humanitarian purposes, complicates discussions of Japan’s future defense policies.

A further review of threats to Japanese security and the appropriate responses is needed even though there is no evidence to suggest that Japan risks being invaded by a foreign power in the foreseeable future.

Russia no longer has the capability of doing so. China has the forces and there is Sino-Japanese friction, but apart from the fact that overt hostilities with Japan would lead to war with the United States and another world war, China has nothing to gain from an attack on Japan and much to loose. Japan is a major investor in and trader with China. The real danger of conflict with China arises over Taiwan — if nationalist sentiment were to boil over and there were acts of provocation on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

The threat from North Korea is of a different order. It lies primarily in the regime’s missile capability and possible possession of a few nuclear weapons. If the regime felt increasingly threatened either from outside or from instability at home, acts of aggression against Japan cannot be totally excluded, although they would be irrational if not mad.

China and Russia remain nuclear powers, but any potential nuclear threat from these two powers is neutralized by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

A significant threat may be posed by international terrorist groups that act even less rationally than the North Korean regime. Seeing Japan as a relatively soft target, they might hope to wean the government away from its reliance on the U.S. alliance by inflicting casualties in Japan. With easier targets in Europe and elsewhere, it is unlikely that Japan is currently a priority target for terrorists, although the presence of SDF forces in Iraq and popular Japanese opposition to the war in Iraq might tempt terrorists to pick Japanese targets.

The Japanese response to these threats must be flexible and imaginative. All three services — maritime, air and ground — will need to work closely together. The danger with military men and politicians is that they think the next war will be fought on lines used in the last war. Furthermore, service jealousies sometimes jeopardize effective planning that requires the sacrifice of particular interests.

The greatest danger to Japan is from missiles. Japan has accordingly decided to put greater efforts into ballistic missile defense and into cooperative research in this area with the U.S. This cooperation is likely to necessitate a relaxation of Japan’s ban on the export of technology related to defense.

Opponents of such a change need to be persuaded that the ban is no longer needed and has become an obstacle to effective Japanese defense. Intelligence capabilities against missiles need to be strengthened. While conventional fighters may not be so important, expenditures on Air Self-Defense reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned drones will probably need to be increased.

The second-greatest threat is at sea. Japan needs to be able to defend its lines of communication to protect its trade and its sources of supply, particularly of energy but also of other raw materials. This suggests that a greater effort is needed to develop antisubmarine capabilities of the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The biggest question is over the future role of the Ground Self-Defense Force. It is likely to be needed at home primarily to deal with natural disasters. It also has a potential role in antiterrorism. It might be necessary to use the GSDF in the aftermath of a terrorist attack to decontaminate areas and support police and other emergency workers.

The GSDF is also likely to be the main SDF component to support future United Nations actions in which Japan is involved. In that case, the GSDF will need small highly mobile forces capable of operating in difficult terrain. They will need to be trained to be politically sensitive to the environment in which they must operate.

There now seems to be a greater willingness among Japanese people to accept some change to the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, but there is no consensus yet on how the clause should be modified. Many wonder whether constitutional change, with all the controversy this would bring, is really essential. What, they ask, is wrong with the current flexible and pragmatic interpretation of the clause?

The vast majority of foreign observers accept that Japan does not pose a military threat to any other state and dismiss the idea that Japan is in any danger of reverting to a rightwing or militarist autocracy. But elements in China fear that. These fears may be whipped up by anti-Japanese sentiment that has been encouraged by nationalist resentment against Japanese successes and by the revival of memories of Japanese atrocities.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s obstinate determination to continue his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial for Japan’s war dead, have fueled anti-Japanese sentiment. Koizumi would be wise to give up these unnecessary visits in the face of Chinese sensitivity. He does not need to be defiant to show that he is firm in his defense of Japanese national interests. Japanese interests, political and economic, can only suffer in the long run if he continues to be insensitive.

Koizumi sees the SDF humanitarian mission in Iraq as an essential part of Japan’s strategy of supporting the U.S.-Japan alliance. He knows that U.S. President George W. Bush attaches great importance to loyalty. He also sees it as a way of moving Japanese defense thinking forward in relation to SDF participation in operations overseas. Fortunately, there have not been any casualties so far among Japanese forces operating in Iraq, but questions about their safety will arise in March when the Netherlands is expected to remove its forces, which have been guarding Japanese personnel.

At present, the SDF can use its weapons only in self-defense or to defend those operating with them. These restrictions could in the future endanger the safety of SDF personnel. The Japanese government may soon have to address this issue. Some Japanese are also asking what Koizumi has gained from his Iraq gesture other than Bush’s good will.