CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – The controversial security legislation has passed the Upper House of the Diet, ushering in a new era in Japanese security policy. Although there was little doubt the bills would pass, the groundswell of disapproval from the public — drawing tens of thousands of protesters — and opposition lawmakers ensures the legislation will be under close scrutiny for the months to come.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe contends the security legislation will help protect Japanese at home and abroad, allow Japan to play a greater role in the international community and fulfill its commitments to the Japan-U.S. alliance. Abe’s reassurance that the Self-Defense Forces would still operate under strict regulations and Japan would not be entangled in foreign wars did little to appease the skeptical public: According to a recent Asahi Shimbun poll, 54 percent of Japanese do not support the security legislation. As a result, the Abe administration has suffered a precipitous drop in its approval ratings over the last few months, a trend that is likely to continue.
Abe had painted himself into a corner, having promised to a joint meeting of Congress back in April that the security bills would be passed by the end of summer. If the bills had failed to pass, especially after President Barack Obama reassured Abe that Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands was covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty, the alliance would have suffered and Abe’s legacy, already marred by his resignation in 2007, would have surely been ruined.
Unlike the tepid support at home, Abe’s push for a more proactive Japan has been met with open arms by the U.S. government and Western security experts. Asia strategist Keith Henry likened Japan to a “42-year-old kid still living in the basement of the United States,” and said that by adopting the new security bills it was finally ” ‘growing up’ and moving beyond vague concepts of peace and democracy that are no longer practical given today’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.” Yet, 42-year-old kids tend not to adjust well to the “real world.” Japan will have difficulty fulfilling the new responsibilities brought on by the new proactive security posture. Beyond increased resistance to related domestic security issues due to passage of the bills, namely the Okinawan base and nuclear power plant issues, economic and demographic issues will hinder the growth of Japan’s security footprint.
Any meaningful expansion of the SDF will require additional defense spending. Many called attention to the record ¥4.98 trillion defense budget and ¥5.09 trillion requested budget for 2016 as evidence of a normalizing Japan. However, when taking into account the weak yen, Japan’s modest military-industrial complex and hence reliance on imports (not yet rectified by the changes to the nonexport principles), as well as the high cost of nonmilitary expenditures (such as salaries and host-nation support costs), its defense budget is unremarkable. Although it has increased over the past few years, the increases followed a decade of decline and the budget has yet to cross the 1 percent of GDP normative threshold. Many within the government do not believe it would be politically feasible to increase the defense budget beyond 1 percent, and it is anyway unlikely as Abe shifts his focus to economic matters following passage of the security bills.
Over the last two decades, defense expenditures comprised roughly 2.5 percent of the overall budget, the lowest among East Asian states. With Abenomics stalling, Abe’s intention to increase the defense budget through economic growth is unlikely to succeed.
China, normally cited as its biggest threat, has far outspent Japan — having overtaken it in 2005 and spending more than five times as much as Japan in 2014 (more than $150 billion). If the security legislation is intended to balance against the growing Chinese threat, Japan won’t be able to afford it.
Moreover, the new security legislation may stretch the SDF thin. The 247,150-member SDF, the oldest in the region (the average age of a SDF member is 35 years old, roughly 10 years older than the average soldier in East Asia), may be large enough to monitor and defend the main islands short of a full-on war, but will struggle to add missions to its agenda.
According to a Defense Ministry white paper, “the number of those aged 18 to 26 who are eligible for recruitment as SDF members was around 17 million in fiscal 1994, but in fiscal 2014 is was only around 11 million, a drop of some 40 percent over 20 years.” The new security legislation will likely lead to weaker recruitment and resignations in the SDF, which is an all-volunteer civilian force and members can resign at any time.
Already, concerned parents are suggesting their children quit the SDF if it gets “too dangerous.” A recruiter for a Kanto region provincial cooperation office lamented in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, “We’ve started having cases where volunteers’ mothers are resistant, asking if the job is dangerous. It’s a sellers’ market, and then there are the security bills, which all make things harder for us.”
More generally, the declining and aging population will further suppress Japan’s ability to find willing and able-bodied volunteers to conduct the new security missions. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan fell below the population replenishment rate back in 1974. By 2020, 35.12 million Japanese will be of retirement age and by 2060, 40 percent of the total population will be over the age of 65. Not only will the demographics problem limit the pool of potential recruits, it will further strain the economy (fewer workers and more pensioners), thus making it harder to increase the defense budget, as mentioned earlier.
Ironically, the very reason why Abe pushed the security legislation — a more assertive China and dangerous international security environment — reveal that the SDF is already stretched thin. According to the Defense Ministry, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2014 alone, the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled its jets 340 times, an increase of 225 sorties, or a threefold rise compared with the same period the year before and the largest number of scrambles since the ministry started keeping track. With China growing more assertive near the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea, the SDF will need to spend more time at home than taking on new missions abroad.
Moreover, under the new security legislation the SDF will have the right to rescue hostages and defend peacekeeping operations forces. However, due to 70 years of a limited security posture, the SDF is woefully under-prepared for such responsibilities. The Defense Ministry’s rapid reaction force, the Central Readiness Force (4,500 personnel) will need intensive training to respond to new threats. Even the United States has had difficulty extracting hostages abroad; it is unlikely Japan will be more successful. Lastly, Japan has committed to helping Southeast Asian states to shore up their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and defense capabilities, another time-intensive and costly endeavor for the Abe administration to worry about.
After two Japanese were kidnapped and killed by Islamic State terrorists, the public was quick to blame Abe for what they saw as unnecessary meddling in international security affairs. Abe had promised $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries fighting Islamic State, and his largely symbolic gesture was met with concrete consequences. As the SDF engages in more dangerous missions under the new security legislation, a single death may lead to relentless opposition to any future mission that would need to be approved by the Diet.
Former Primer Minister Taro Aso once proudly proclaimed, “Japan’s Self Defense Forces for 60 years have not shot a single round of artillery, nor a single bullet from a gun.” Japan has been fortunate enough to avoid the ugly realities of international conflicts, partly due to the U.S. security guarantee and partly due to Japanese aversion to militarism, but this will no longer be the case.
It may have been inevitable that Japan would “normalize” its security posture, it has been doing so since the early ’90s, but this may be a case of too much, too soon. Within the last three years Japan has amended its arms export principles, adopted collective self-defense and changed dozens of security-related laws. These changes have angered many Japanese citizens, and for security bill proponents in the West who are expecting a powerful new military force fighting for democracy, disappointment awaits.
The security legislation will do little to deter China or North Korea, and the SDF is not large or strong enough to turn the tides of war in international peacekeeping and possible U.S.-led war efforts.
Tom Le, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and a non-resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation fellow at the CSIS Pacific Forum, recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship at Hiroshima City University. © 2015, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency.
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