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Military modernization is a constant process. Securing the state and protecting its citizens are the first tasks of any government. Militaries are vital to achieving these objectives, even though they are not the only means for doing so. Moreover, wise governments recognize that security is not absolute and that actions taken by one state can create insecurity in neighbors and potential adversaries, triggering an ugly spiral that can destabilize a region. This “security dilemma” is a staple of international relations theory — and increasingly appears to describe developments in Northeast Asia.

Governments upgrade armed forces for many reasons: New technologies become available. Old weapons degrade. New threats emerge. International roles and missions evolve, requiring new capabilities. Rising status demands bigger, shinier weapons. Sometimes a government just wants to keep up with its neighbors and rivals.

The evolution of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is driven by several of these factors: New capabilities derive from new technologies; the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan create new demands; and new roles and missions result from a recalibration of responsibilities within the alliance.

Japan’s current political leadership seeks a higher security profile in the region and the world, and the SDF is seen as an important vehicle in that effort.

A similar realignment process is occurring within the U.S.-South Korea alliance, demanding new capabilities, new roles and missions, and new responsibilities. This process receives less attention than it deserves, given the link between security on the Korean Peninsula and that in Japan.

South Korea has launched its first Aegis destroyer equipped with advanced air and sea weaponry; a second will be launched in 2010 and a third in 2012. It is somewhat troubling that South Korean Navy officials have been quoted as saying the new vessels are being acquired with military developments in China and Japan in mind.

In Japan, and elsewhere, China’s military modernization effort gets the most attention. The most recent annual U.S. Department of Defense report on the People’s Liberation Army once again puts the China’ program in the spotlight.

As in the past, the report warns of expansion and modernization. It highlights the development of mobile, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range, submarine-launched ballistic missiles that will be deployed on a new fleet of nuclear submarines, both of which provide an enhanced nuclear-strike capability.

The report notes that the January anti-satellite test “puts at risk the assets of all space-faring nations.” According to the report, “China is pursuing long-term comprehensive transformation of its military forces to improve its capabilities for power-projection, anti-access and area denial.” Beijing appears to be “generating capabilities for other regional contingencies, such as conflict over resources or territory.”

The report repeats long-standing criticism that China’s defense program is opaque. It calculates that real defense spending may be two or three times larger than the officially acknowledged $45 billion budget. All this calls into question China’s repeated assurances to the world that its rise will be peaceful, that it constitutes no threat to other nations, and that its military modernization effort is commensurate with that of any country of its economic reach and status.

Japan should take these criticisms to heart — not just because Japan and China may find themselves in situations in which their capabilities could be challenged, but also because the charge that Beijing lacks transparency can be leveled against Tokyo, too. Japan has one of the world’s largest military budgets and some of the most advanced weapon systems.

Yes, the Constitution prohibits war as an instrument of policy, the public is vehemently opposed to any change in that policy, and special factors characterize the budget, such as host-nation support for the U.S. and a high personnel budget. But Japan’s neighbors argue that Japanese intentions are still unclear and that there is a gap between the nation’s professed commitment to peace and its military capabilities.

We do not believe that concern about Japan is justified. But that does not mean that other nations’ worries can be blithely dismissed. If Chinese protestations do not convince us, why should our statements convince the Chinese? Clearly, nations must be sensitive not just to their own anxieties but also to those of their neighbors. Failure to build trust and confidence will make it far more likely that new weapons systems will eventually be used.

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