The government’s 2015 defense white paper, formally reported to the Cabinet last week, has been revised after its initial draft was rejected by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s national defense panel in early July on the grounds that it was being “too soft” on China. Including its expanded description on China’s activities to build an offshore gas platform in the East China Sea, the white paper pays particular attention to China’s maritime assertiveness in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and stresses that the security situation surrounding Japan has become “increasingly tough.” It says that China “has been continuing activities seen as high-handed to alter the status quo by force and has attempted to materialize its unilateral claim without making compromise.”
By highlighting the threat posed by China, the government appears to be trying to use the white paper to drum up public support for the Abe administration’s controversial security legislation, which paves the way for Japan’s use of force in collective self-defense and significantly expands the scope of the Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions.
The white paper implicitly underlines the importance of boosting Japan’s security deterrence by saying that due to the military buildup and increasing military activities of its neighbors — an apparent reference to China and North Korea — security problems and destabilizing factors in the Asia-Pacific regions are becoming serious. The report says it is more and more difficult for Japan alone to cope with the situation, apparently referring to the need to beef up military ties with the United States — the basic idea behind the security bills. But possible contingencies involving the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — the source of a bitter territorial row and diplomatic tension between Tokyo and Beijing — are matters that can be dealt with by Japan through the exercise of its right to individual self-defense.
China occasionally resorts to hegemonic behavior. But if Japan plays up the threats posed by China and uses them as a pretext to beef up its military capabilities, China could use that as an excuse to respond in kind. The result would be a ramping up of regional tension and a possible arms race. One wonders whether the Abe administration is paying attention to the possibility of such a dangerous outcome.
Predictably, Beijing criticized the white paper for “artificially creating tensions” and “stirring up fears about China’s military threats.” It is true that China is increasing its military assertiveness. This makes it all the more important that Japan take broad-based approaches to diffuse tensions and to improve bilateral ties. Leaning lopsidedly toward a military approach, as symbolized by the Abe administration’s pursuit of the security legislation, will never produce constructive results.
According to the white paper, the Air-Self Defense Force scrambled fighter jets a record 464 times against Chinese aircraft approaching Japanese airspace in fiscal 2014, up 49 times from a year earlier. The white paper points to a “trend toward the routinization” of Chinese government ships’ activities around the Senkaku Islands. But it fails to mention that the frequency of Chinese ship’s incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the islands has in fact declined — around three days on average per month — compared with the period right after the Japanese government purchased the islets from their private owner. While the report refers to the talks being held between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities since January to establish a bilateral communication mechanism to prevent accidental military encounters, it fails to mention China’s eagerness to quickly establish such a mechanism.
Regarding the situation in the South China Sea, the white paper says that China has conducted reclamation work “rapidly” and “on a large scale” at seven reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, causing international concerns. The Abe administration reportedly plans to push assistance for Southeast Asian countries involved in territorial rows with China to help them improve their handling of defense equipment and operation of military units, and to carry out joint military drills with them. But one wonders if such aid is the best way for Japan to prevent an escalation of tensions in the area.
The white paper also touches on the security challenges posed by the Islamic State and other international terrorist groups, saying that the risk of terrorism “has been on the increase in developed countries” and that Japan “is not immune” from such risks. Because military approaches alone cannot eliminate terrorism, the Abe administration must seriously consider long-term, peaceful ways to remove the seeds of terrorism, including efforts to eradicate poverty. The government also must not dismiss the possibility of Japan becoming a terrorist target as a result of it taking on greater roles in international security matters. Such risks should be taken into serious consideration as the Diet deliberates on the security legislation.