Japan’s defense shift is hailed, but weaknesses will remain: experts

by and

Staff Writers

The passage of the new security laws over strong public objection satisfies long-standing U.S. desires for Japan to be more of a regional military player and will strengthen defense cooperation with countries like Australia.

But domestic political concerns and worries about relations with China and South Korea are likely to place constraints on just how far Japan goes in actually expanding its military presence, Japanese and foreign experts say.

“The most tangible result of the new laws will likely be closer coordination between the Self-Defense Forces, the U.S. military, and other militaries in the region,” says Tobias Harris, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, D.C., and an expert on Japanese politics. “The new laws raise the ceiling for the SDF to conduct potentially lethal operations overseas, but they by no means obligate the SDF to come to the aid of allies or participate in coalitions.”

He said the laws’ unpopularity will force Abe and future prime ministers to exercise caution when deciding on SDF deployments overseas. “Raising the legal ceiling is one thing. Actually sending troops abroad with the possibility that they might use force is another matter entirely,” Harris said.

Garren Mulloy, an associate professor at Daito Bunka University who has studied the SDF’s overseas operations, says the greatest area for change under the new laws is in the Ground Self-Defense Force, while the greatest scope for cooperation with the U.S. will be in intelligence.

“For decades, the GSDF has lacked a senior partner to mentor it, with limited U.S. Army and U.S. marine cooperation. Now, with the striving for amphibious capability, the marines have become the partner of choice and this has opened up new training and operational possibilities for the GSDF, and by extension, greater cooperation with the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy,” Mulloy said.

However, he added, this issue may not be as important as it seems. “Defending an island is a whole lot easier than retaking one, and to undertake a Falklands-style operation may simply not be feasible.”

On intelligence, he added, greater cooperation will be limited by the lack of Japanese capacity on all levels.

“Japan won’t found a Japan Central Intelligence Agency due to bureaucratic turf wars, but they might get a director of national security intelligence, possibly feeding into the new National Security Council, or possibly reporting directly to the prime minister’s office,” he said.

The new laws are also expected to impact Japan’s relationship with Australia, as well as the trilateral relationship with the U.S.

“The variable in the Australia-Japan relationship is the U.S., but both countries want to ensure that the current, U.S.-led order in the Asian region continues, and the new laws will help facilitate this,” said Michael Heazle, an associate professor of political science at Griffith University in Brisbane who specializes in Japan’s foreign policy. “The U.S. is militarily overstretched, especially in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, so it’s demanding countries like Australia and Japan do more.”

Australia’s ASIS foreign intelligence service is already training Japanese intelligence officers, The Australian newspaper reported in March.

While the U.S. and Australia welcome the new laws, expanded activities by the SDF could create tensions with China over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a Nagoya University of Foreign Studies professor who is an expert on Japan-China relations.

The uninhabited Senkaku Islands are also claimed by China, which call them Diaoyu. Beijing regularly sends government ships to the contiguous zone surrounding Japanese territorial waters, while Japan Coast Guard boats conduct patrols in the area.

Kawamura argued that if Tokyo steps up its efforts to protect the islands by sending in the SDF, China may feel forced to respond with military force.

“That would raise concerns about possible risky behavior due to an escalating military distrust of each other, creating a security dilemma,” Kawamura said.

For the U.S., which is obligated under the bilateral security treaty to defend Japan in the case of an attack, such a scenario is unwelcome.

“The U.S. hopes its allies like Japan take on more of a burden-sharing role in regards to security issues Washington is involved with. However, it doesn’t want to get involved in a possible conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku issue, because it doesn’t directly touch upon U.S. interests,” Kawamura added.

But the legislation also carries something other than legal force itself: a stronger presence.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday the changes aim to shore up Japan’s deterrent power by signaling a “fully functional” alliance with the U.S.

“Discouraging the other party from stealing our territory if there is a chance — this is what deterrence is all about,” Abe said.

As to South Korea, Yuki Asaba, a professor of South Korean politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture graduate school, said the South Korean public either sees the legislation as a sign of Japan’s drift to the right or, at an extreme, renewed militarism, but that its enactment is not bad news for the Korean government.

Asaba said smooth trilateral cooperation with Japan and the U.S. should be welcomed in Seoul for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. The legislation enables Tokyo to exercise the right to collective self-defense in situations that threaten Japan’s survival.

Abe cited defending U.S. naval vessels in case of an emergency on the peninsula as an example of Japan acting in collective self-defense.

It also allows Japan to provide logistical support to the U.S. and other forces in the event of a situation that would gravely affect Japan’s peace and security.

  • Tony

    The unresolved issue of the Diaoyu Islands is high on the agenda of the PLA. Only practical steps with a resolute message can prevent the creeping success of China’s claim. The eventual removal of the United States beyond the second island chain is a prerequisite to resolving matters to the PLA’s satisfaction.
    A few uninhabited Japanese rocks, cannot justify a war, even if China’s threats are made real. China’s Ming Dynasty controlled the islands; the Qing Dynasty placed them under the jurisdiction of Taiwan. China was forced to cede Taiwan together with the Diaoyu Islands in May 1895. The Cairo and Potsdam Declaration called for the return of the islands. The U.S. failure to do so was a mistake.
    United States’ forces in Japan mean the U.S. cannot avoid entanglement in Japan’s security. China is not alone in the Diaoyu Islands dispute with the ability to start a war; Japan can as well. The unconditionality of the U.S. commitment, that the bases ensure, could be a liability if a future Japanese government chose to push back more aggressively against China’s buildup.
    The PLAN’s nuclear submarine force and particularly the ballistic missile force are already complicating the equation for future presidents. It will eventually constrain those options completely. The Chinese-Japanese dispute and encouragement for Japan to act as a bulwark, by rearming and become a surrogate for the United States strategic interests, will inevitably lead to blowback. The United States would not accept the destruction of a major city in the U.S. for the sake of Tokyo or Osaka or even less so the Diaoyu Islands.
    “The Aztlan Protocol” a brilliant depiction of where all this is going should be read by anyone with an interest in this subject. Sometimes it is easier for those in the know to tell the truth through fiction, if you get what I mean. Anyway, Alderic Au certainly knows of what he speaks.
    The arms race in Asia has jet to begin in earnest. We will know that moment has arrived when Tokyo makes the fateful decision to go nuclear. Otherwise, Alderic Au and “The Aztlan Protocol” may prove to be prescient.

    • Hypocrite

      If the assassination of a Prince by some nationalist schoolboys was good enough reason to start World War 1, oil around the South China sea is a very good reason for the war to start on some pretext or the other. China seems too selfish to share any resources despite receiving oil from Central Asia, Eurasia, Middle East. It will pay terribly for this greed.

      • Huh? Share? Do the west share anything with the east? The oil is a free gift? Anyway the people’s army will reign victorious and you will pay with them for your pro-western chauvinism and folly instead.

      • Hypocrite

        Oil is not a free gift. That’s the reason we fight over it. For the matter I am an Indian. China has taken it too far by stretching its tentacles into South Asia by putting up a corridor in Pakistan called CPEC. Not only that it has started politics in Afghanistan and Central Asia. How sad that the Chinese don’t realise that only Persians and Indians can relate to Afghan customs and traditions. Already Turks have protested against Chinese behaviour in Xinjiang. Soon, it will spread to Central Asia too where the people are Turkic. Having Pakistan for a neighbour, India has learnt the new age war for quite a while. Now the war will enter China and we will see China bleed in the same way the NATO learnt a hard lesson in Afghanistan. It is for no small reason that Afghanistan is called the death place of civilization. But this time it is going to be the West, East and South against China. You could have made deals with the smaller nations but refused to do so because of your might and pride. Now you will regret it deeply.

  • All those countries outside our Chinese shores have long been problematic and weak. They will be conquered and capitalised upon.

    • 大千釜 創雷

      By who? China? I hope you are not an anachronistic imperialist.

  • Steve van Dresser

    Domestic political concerns didn’t place any restraint on passing this war enabling piece of legislation. How could anyone believe it would act to restrain its implementation?

    The same people who wanted to enable getting Japan into war are the warmongers who will be making the decisions on implementation. The only solution is to throw the warmongers out.