Commentary / Japan | Commentary

Looking back on Japan's security in 2019

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

2019 is coming to a close, offering observers a chance to take stock of what the year has meant for Japan’s security.

There is a lot to digest, whether it was the inclusion of a new economic unit in the National Security Secretariat, the lingering rift between Japan and South Korea since the P-1 radar lock incident last December or the initiation of Japan’s F-35 operations from Misawa Air Base, among others.

From this observer’s vantage point, there were three issues of particular note in Japanese security heading into 2020, or as I label them: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good: Japan’s cooperation with foreign security partners. This was a banner year for Japan’s security relations. For decades, Japan’s only meaningful military relationship was with the United States. Perhaps that was all that was necessary in the context of the Cold War environment, but in the dynamic global setting that exists today, Japan has had to adapt. It has done this well, and that included groundbreaking activities in 2019 with countries throughout the world.

Among those activities was running Exercise Malabar with U.S. and Indian participants out of Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture. The Maritime Self-Defense Force also participated in Exercise Joint Warrior in the United Kingdom. The Ground Self-Defense Force joined the amphibious assault exercise Kamandag in the Philippines. In October, the U.K. became the first military partner to conduct bilateral (i.e., without U.S. involvement) ground-based training on Japanese soil. Earlier this month, Japan dedicated full-fledged participants (not just observers) to NATO’s Cyber Coalition exercise. The list goes on.

All of this security cooperation is critical for three reasons. First, it is necessary for advancing Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which is predicated on a unified reinforcement of a rules-based international order. In practice, this means that the so-called middle powers must remain closely aligned, especially in the context of national security.

Second, these expanded security relationships buttress the Japan-U.S. alliance. As codified in the 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation and reinforced in every “two-plus-two” joint statement since, there is an allied mandate to foster multilateral cooperation that supports security in the region and abroad.

Third, they represent Japan’s maturation as a Group of Seven leader. As the only Asian member of the G7, Japan shoulders a disproportionate load from some of the other parties, but Tokyo’s reticence to employ anything resembling military power had diminished its place among global leaders — the label “checkbook diplomacy” still stings in some circles. In 2019, that has given way to a willingness to engage in unprecedented military activities beyond the confines of strictly “defense of Japan” scenarios.

Importantly the government has not needed to abandon its war-renunciation principles to do this, nor should it. In an era where competitors are seeking to challenge the status quo in the “gray zone,” there is utility in having a global leader focused on military solutions short of armed conflict. Heading into 2020, Japan’s defense sector does not have to look at Article 9 of its Constitution as obstacle (as some tend to do), but as a welcome prism through which to understand the necessary next steps to its security strategy.

Understanding how to leverage security initiatives in the gray zone will be critical in addressing the bad from 2019: increased Chinese presence operations in the East China Sea.

In an article headlined “China’s Senkakus ambition” I wrote earlier for this newspaper, I detailed that Chinese presence operations in the vicinity of the Senkakus had reached record numbers as a challenge to the status quo. The nearly 70 consecutive days of Chinese coast guard vessels operating in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands this summer was part of an effort to establish a “new normal” of co-administration of those waters. As 2019 comes to a close, this trend continues with over 1,000 incursions, an 80 percent increase from last year.

While this challenge to the status quo is bad, Japan is taking positive steps to counterbalance it. The Ground Self-Defense Force has continued development of its amphibious rapid deployment brigade, exercising capabilities in Japan and with foreign partners abroad.

More importantly, 2019 saw the National Police Agency cementing plans to step up its role. Remote island defense is a niche mission set for the police, but the NPA recognized the necessity to posture against gray zone incidents. The NPA’s 2020 budget request suggests that up to 159 new police officers could be assigned to Okinawa along with additional helicopters and weapons for patrolling Japan’s uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard recently announced a plan to introduce 12 new vessels by fiscal 2023, nine of which will be deployed to Kagoshima and Okinawa to support administration of the Senkakus. Six of those will be in the largest class of Japan Coast Guard vessels, an important move to match the growing size and capabilities of Chinese coast guard assets. All of this represents clear momentum-building to counter China’s Senkaku Islands ambition and represents the next step in the evolution of Japan’s southwest islands defense strategy.

While there was some upside to the bad, it is difficult to say the same about the ugly: the government’s fumbling of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system deployment.

In June 2018, the government announced that it had whittled down its choices from 19 potential sites to just two: the Araya exercise area in Akita Prefecture, and the Mutsumi exercise area in Yamaguchi Prefecture. With this, the government put all of its eggs in those two baskets, and subsequently faltered.

The problems came to a head in June, when the Defense Ministry presented inaccurate information to the Akita Prefectural Government and interested constituents. Rather than waiting for a formal impact assessment of the Aegis Ashore radar, a government official produced an ad hoc report using Google Earth. Unsurprisingly, it discredited the unit sent to gain the local community’s acceptance and introduced the concern that other sites were potentially viable.

The situation worsened when a member of the government team fell asleep during explanations to Akita’s leaders and citizens. While it is fairly common in Japan for backbenchers to fall asleep in meetings, the image of a “haughty” bureaucrat snoozing away reinforced the notion that the government was disingenuous in attempts to gain public acceptance. In turn, the process of finalizing the deployment location drags on, and so does the date when Aegis Ashore will become operational.

While any democratic country can run into political trouble in seeking a location for deployment of new units, the Aegis Ashore debacle is representative of systemic problems in Japan’s approach to this process.

There are three basic problems: The first is limiting alternatives. Rather than having a handful of viable deployment locations to be pursued simultaneously, the government has a practice of pursuing only one at a time. In this case, Japan wants to deploy two Aegis Ashore systems and picked a grand total of two candidate locations. Limiting alternatives forces desperation in negotiations in various ways, including taking rushed action meant to avoid any friction that could prevent agreement.

The desire to mollify protest quickly leads to the second problem: the government’s tendency to offer inadequate information or bad promises. In the case of the Aegis Ashore deployment, the officials needed to provide an explanation, and in lieu of something formal from Lockheed (the company contracted to provide the missile defense system), government officials went with an in-house product that they thought could satisfy the requirement and failed. It is yet to be seen what the government promised to the people of Akita, but the best example of bad promises in 2019 came when it was revealed that government officials had informed residents of Miyakojima that the new missile unit being deployed there would not be storing — of all things — missiles.

Finally, there is the politicization of base-hosting. There are important issues related to base-hosting that require legislation and oversight, but the problem is that over the years so much legislation and policy have been intertwined with compensation politics. This means that not only are anti-base politicians opposed to new deployments, but pro-base politicians take anti-base stances to try to maximize the benefits that come with granting acceptance. Taken in conjunction with the first two problems listed above, it creates a messy situation all throughout Japan, whether in Akita, Yamaguchi or anywhere else.

All said, the presence of the bad and the ugly should not imply that 2019 was anything but a net positive for Japanese security heading into 2020. It does suggest that the new year offers Japan some immediate issues to work out, such as finalizing instruments of alignment with foreign partners (e.g., the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia). It will also need to put into action its budget plans for improving response to gray zone scenarios in the East China Sea while reconsidering its approach to base-hosting relations. If Japan can focus on those efforts, it will affirm that 2019 put the country on the right path for moving forward in the security realm.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.