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Quiet changes in Japan’s defense

by Timothy Cox, David Dodwell, and Masahiro Matsumura

OSAKA — Japan appears to be drifting aimlessly under a divided government, and its external policy seems equally disoriented under a Fukuda administration that has been up to its neck and largely unsuccessful in blazing new trails for the country. Surprisingly, though, bureaucratic autopilot does not pervade Japanese politics.

Since the late 1990s, Japan has kept in step with increasingly sophisticated U.S. military advances centered on networked, information-dominant strategies, often referred to as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The greater investments that Japan has had to make to keep in step with U.S. RMA advances have transformed the traditional nature of the bilateral power relationship that represents the U.S.-Japan alliance.

To keep an element of proportion on U.S. RMA advances, Tokyo has aimed at achieving a gradual and limited transformation, with the initial focus on creating advanced RMA enclaves consisting of Aegis vessels, AWACS aircraft and some C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) sensors, installations and facilities.

This core will serve as the base upon which Japan develops its military in the future. With the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq, the Japanese policy of spending restraint has turned out to be propitious. The Iraq quagmire has consumed considerable defense expenditures that would otherwise have been spent to accelerate the U.S. RMA drive.

With limited C4ISR assets, Japan can take only sub-optimal advantage of the network-centric RMA. Japan will be able to exert full military efficacy only when the Self-Defense Forces enjoy guaranteed access to necessary information and data from global U.S. C4ISR networks. Hence, before making capital-intensive acquisitions, Tokyo must raise its accessibility to the U.S. C4ISR networks, or negotiate for Washington to release C4ISR information and data to Japan.

RMA demands comprehensive protection of classified military information across C4ISR networks on the grounds that network-centricity inherent in system integration makes it almost impossible to meaningfully isolate a particular subsystem from the whole and still protect each piece of classified information in an isolated manner. In August 2007, Japan and the United States concluded a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) setting the basic bilateral framework for the comprehensive protection of classified information.

In pursuit of the RMA transformation, the U.S-Japan GSOMIA will contribute not only to deepening the bilateral alliance but also to elevating Japan’s position within the hierarchy of the U.S. military hegemonic system. Such potential will be fully developed only when Tokyo institutes its own legal-administrative regime for the protection of classified military information, in a manner that facilitates a significantly higher level of authorization to release information.

During the Cold War, Japan was totally detached from the core circle of the U.S. military hegemonic system: the U.S.-led COMINT (Communication Intelligence) alliance of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose close relationships were made possible by GSOMIAs and other related legal instruments.

As Japan’s RMA policy may appear low-profile and sluggish, marked by the gradual and limited acquisition of major platforms, one may overlook that the policy has laid out the necessary institutional infrastructure for a RMA transformation, a demonstration of Japan’s commitment to significantly enhancing military coordination, cooperation and collaboration with the U.S. The U.S.-Japan GSOMIA is a crucial element of this. Through such institutional deepening, Japan’s RMA policy has strengthened the bilateral alliance relationship.

Given the regional security environment, Japan’s approach to RMA offers an important model for other Asian allies to redefine their relationship with the U.S. and to re-identify their positions in the U.S. military hegemonic system. These resource-constrained Asian countries can learn from Japan’s alliance policy, and from the Japanese RMA model that involves phased policy priority and sequential policy execution. Countries may opt to strengthen the alliance relationship with the U.S. through active RMA transformation, with initial priority placed on institutional transformation, and the gradual but limited acquisition of network-centric platforms and infrastructure.

Conversely, they may choose to weaken or even break the alliance relationship by rejecting RMA or adopting a sub-optimal or superficial RMA transformation. Alternatively, they may choose to procrastinate leaving their alliances adrift.

The U.S.-led RMA has great potential to alter the U.S. military hegemonic system centered on Northeast Asia. The RMA now presses its regional allies to re-define their alliance relationship with the U.S. Most important, Japan is already firmly anchored to the system through its own unique RMA policy, progressively preparing for full RMA transformation.

With the U.S.-Japan alliance so reinforced, South Korea and Taiwan would do well to emulate the Japanese RMA model, thereby serving as important pillars of the U.S. system in the region.

Masahiro Matsumura is professor of international politics of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku) in Osaka. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)