Defense boost ends Tokyo drift
Japan rethinks the value of a 'peace constitution' in an increasingly unstable region

Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse, U.S. Air Force

Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Japan Self-Defense Force members as part of a nine-day tour of Asia on Aug. 24, 2011. The vice president was visited Japan to express dedication to steadfast U.S. support.

Article Highlights

  • Has Japan finally been mugged by reality? Several policy moves in the past month suggest so

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  • Japan has figured out good intentions are no insurance against the destabilizing actions of aggressive regimes

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  • New actions are a notable swerve away from Japan's decades-long adherence to the country's postwar 'peace constitution'

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Has Japan finally been mugged by reality? Several policy moves in the past month suggest Tokyo has been rudely awakened to the dangers of an increasingly volatile region and is actually doing something about it. By pledging to buy advanced stealth aircrafts and starting to fight back against cyberwarfare, Japan is telling the world that it has figured out good intentions are no insurance against the destabilizing actions of aggressive regimes. It is an apt lesson for a troubled time in Asia and a lesson America's leaders should learn.

The new year opened with the news that Tokyo is developing a virus to disable computers used by cyber attackers. This comes after an unidentified hacker broke into the systems of defense contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries earlier this year, stealing sensitive information on military programs and nuclear power plants. In December, the upper house of Parliament was hacked by addresses originating in China. Ironically, the company entrusted by the government with developing the cyber counterattack, Fujitsu, was itself penetrated this past fall, leading to a crash in service at more than 200 local government websites.

Secondly, the Noda administration announced in December a long-awaited relaxation of the ban on arms exports, which also served to choke off joint development of weapons systems. While a number of restrictions will remain, Japan will be able to move ahead with foreign cooperative development of some defensive systems, as it has been doing with the U.S. on the SM-3 missile interceptor.

Finally, in a widely noticed decision, the government said it would purchase the stealthy fifth-generation F-35 as its next frontline fighter. Many observers doubted Japan would agree to the hefty cost of buying and maintaining an unproven fighter, but it may provide a useful technological edge for the Air Self-Defense Forces for decades to come. If the F-35 lives up to its billing, Japan will become part of an informal allied air corps in Asia—flying the same plane and able to cooperate more closely with the U.S., Australia and South Korea.

These actions, taken together, are a notable swerve away from a decades-long adherence to the country's postwar "peace constitution." Over the years, successive governments tied themselves up in knots trying to present as nonprovocative a military posture as possible. Few laws restricting overseas activities were passed, but poor interpretations of general principles left policy makers isolated on the world stage.

Most notoriously, a cabinet interpretation denying the right of collective self-defense, even while upholding the principle, prevented the natural evolution of an alliance with the U.S. and resulted in tortuous Diet deliberations every time Self-Defense Forces were to be sent abroad. Similarly, the 1967 ban on arms exports was meant to prevent military items from being sent to belligerents, but wound up as a comprehensive ban blocking aid to smaller nations or other democracies. That same year, the Cabinet adopted an informal rule to limit defense spending to 1% of GDP.

Nonaggression as the nation's highest principle was most starkly shown in Japan's refusal to contribute forces to the 1991 war against Iraq after it invaded oil-rich Kuwait, despite the fact that Japan depended on the Middle East for over 90% of its oil.

Such an Alice-in-Wonderland position could exist only under the firm umbrella of the U.S. alliance. Washington's promise to use all means at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, to protect Japan's sovereignty relieved Tokyo of the need for serious defense planning. It forewent an effective national defense and the type of regional partnerships that would have allowed it to play a larger role in the strategic environment in Asia as China grew and North Korea developed nuclear weapons.

Despite this attitude, the island nation maintained a fairly large and advanced military, as a $40 billion annual defense budget was no problem for what was long the world's second largest economy. A strong Maritime Self-Defense Force was matched by an air force with leading fighters. But the military spent decades without any foreign deployments. It was left without experience and without the real power projection capabilities expected of a liberal nation dependent on freedom of navigation and regional stability for its prosperity.

By the late-1990s, geostrategic reality was crashing down on Japan's weak security posture. China was emerging as a contentious regional power, buying dozens of submarines and advanced fighters. And in 1998, North Korea launched a multi-stage ballistic missile over Japanese territory. This galvanized national fears and led to the country spending upwards of a billion dollars annually on ballistic missile defenses by the mid-2000s. Yet overall defense spending since 1999 has stayed flat or declined slightly, meaning that fewer new weapons systems are being bought due to missile defense eating up the budget.

Now, however, Tokyo seems to be connecting the dots. Leaders worry the U.S. military will not remain a credible force in coming decades in light of planned budget cuts, and have seen Washington's repeated outreach to China, North Korea and even Iran rebuffed. More countries have more powerful weapons and there is less confidence in diplomatic mechanisms to keep peace. In response, last year's National Defense Program Guidelines codified a strategic change to "active defense" and closer integration with the U.S. But only by putting meat on the bones will Japan prove its seriousness about defending itself and playing a bigger role in the community of liberal nations promoting stability in Asia. Looking forward, policies like the ban on collective self-defense will have to be reassessed.

Dealing with unfriendly neighbors is never fun. But if the result is a more realistic approach to threats on the horizon, then the ordeal will lead to a safer Japan and a safer Asia.

Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

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