WASHINGTON – With a mini-Cold War emerging in East Asia and the Japan-U.S. alliance appearing less robust in the initial phase of the inexperienced new Trump administration, Tokyo needs to take some additional measures to safeguard its security.
To maintain the regional status quo, Japan depends on the overwhelming U.S. military power that can be brought into play through the alliance. Japan can only play limited supplementary and complementary military roles vis-a-vis the United States. This means Japan must follow the U.S. lead in North Korea policy, which involves highly strategic issues such as nuclear deterrence and missile defense, while closely coordinating its defense policy with Washington. Yet, on the other hand, Japan has opportunities to buttress U.S. security policy toward Chinese expansionism in the South and East China seas.
A full-scale conventional U.S.-China war is unlikely given superior U.S. air and naval power in the two seas. China is fully aware of the disparity, particularly when U.S. and Japanese military power is combined.
But this deterrent effect only applies in the case of a conventional war in which the U.S. can effectively employ regular forces with high-tech weapons. China sees opportunities to take advantage of small-scale armed conflict short of outright war, especially by employing paramilitary and/or irregular forces. These may include armed police forces, army troops with older weapons, large law enforcement vessels with dated guns and cannons, and a lightly armed maritime militia utilizing fishing boats and older aircraft.
For the U.S., the threshold of a full-scale conventional war with China is too high due to the danger of escalation to a nuclear war. China has been careful enough not to cross the threshold, while making full use of older low-tech platforms and weapons.
This approach is very effective in exerting psychological pressure on militarily weak Southeast Asian countries, forcing them to acquiesce to China’s domination. They will eventually become completely helpless in the face of Chinese salami-slicing tactics, eventually accepting China’s would-be regional hegemony.
China is adept in combining military sticks with trade and investment as economic carrots. Hence, Japan must strive to ease the impact of China’s psychological pressure on Southeast Asian countries. Such an approach would be particularly effective when combined with the reinforced U.S. freedom of navigation and overflight operations that the Trump administration will likely pursue, supplemented by Japan’s related military operations.
A window of opportunity is now open for Japan to export defensive arms to Southeast Asian countries. Major powers, including China itself, are already engaged in arms exports to regional countries. China is not in the position to criticize other arms exporters, at least in principle. Nor has it done so.
Such exports have to be well-calibrated so that Southeast Asian countries can be more self-reliant in possible low-intensity conflicts with China. These Asian countries either need to make paramilitary use of police forces or policing use of regular forces to resist Chinese pressure in the legal state between wartime and peacetime. To cope with this circumstance, they do not need high-tech weapons, but rather more operational ships and aircraft equipped with older weapons similar to those employed by Chinese forces. To maintain a continuous presence with one ship actually requires three ships to allow for transit time, training and maintenance.
More specifically, Japan’s arms transfers could include auxiliary frontline equipment now deployed by the Self-Defense Forces and other equipment that is no longer in domestic production and deployment. These items range from refurbished decommissioned coast guard vessels and/or SDF propeller training aircraft (which already have been or soon will be transferred to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam), to trainer jets and general purpose helicopters (which can be equipped with armament pods), to land vehicles and related equipment, including armored vehicles and military trucks.
This defense equipment is not expensive, does not include high-level military secrets and is not difficult to produce and use. It also matches very well with the fiscal, technological and operational abilities and needs of Southeast Asian countries. Japan’s prudent arms exports can greatly contribute to regional stability and peace.
Taking advantage of this opportunity requires the Japanese government and the defense industry to change their half-hearted mindset nurtured during Japan’s longtime de facto arms export ban. The ban was lifted in 2014 and replaced with a new policy of promoting arms exports. However, the defense industry lacks a basic understanding of the various needs of Southeast Asian militaries as well as specific arms export experience.
To rectify this problem, the government should communicate well with Japan’s defense industry about its strategic goals and policy objectives, while the industry has to develop smooth export-licensing agreements with the government. Moreover, the policy shift poses a great challenge that demands close government-industry collaboration, including financing of commercial and financial institutions, which are not traditionally part of the defense sector. The shift also should employ retired SDF technical personnel for platform- and depot-level repair and maintenance of exported Japanese defense equipment.
Movement toward a more active arms export policy requires a shift of government policy priorities rather than a commitment of significant fiscal resources. With the proper policy, calibrated Japanese arms exports to Southeast Asian countries can be an effective policy instrument for preserving regional stability. This may open a new horizon of Japan’s proactive contribution to peace.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University in Osaka and a visiting research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington.