Japan steps up defense alliances
While authoritarian states are expanding their militaries, it's key for liberal states to forge stronger ties

Daedrius/flickr

Japanese military caps, June 20, 2011

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  • While authoritarian states are expanding their militaries, it's key for liberal states to forge stronger ties

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  • Three events show that #Japan can play a greater security role in the region without revising its constitution

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  • Will #Noda or any successor commit the fund necessary to secure #Japan?

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As tensions rise on the seas throughout East Asia and the Indian Ocean, a big question has been the extent to which Japan could participate in maintaining stability. Commentators tend to assume that the Japanese constitution's strict constraints on military activity form an insurmountable barrier to vigorous defensive cooperation. However, three upcoming events show that Tokyo can play a greater security role in the region without having to revise the constitution.

First, new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda plans to visit India in December. The Indian Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force then will conduct their first bilateral naval exercises in the Indian Ocean early next year, having participated in multilateral exercises in the past. This is the latest fruit of the limited defense agreements Japan signed with India and Australia over the past several years. These deals, which include cooperation on counterterrorism and disaster management break years of Japanese security isolation.

" In a world in which only authoritarian states seem to be committed to building their militaries, creating stronger ties among liberal states with similar security concerns is a good approach. "--Michael Auslin

Second, this month Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold a summit at which they will release a joint declaration pledging efforts to promote maritime security, particularly in the South China Sea. While there are yet no specifics to the agreement, it follows coast guard exercises between Japan and the Philippines late last year and prior naval drills with Singapore as part of multilateral exercises.

Third, Mr. Noda is reported to have decided to end Japan's longstanding restrictions on arms exports, which currently are prohibited to any country but the United States. The ban has cut Japan's defense industry off from global markets and joint development projects, leading to an industry plagued by high costs and less innovation than other countries. Forcing it to become more competitive could lead to a more fiscally efficient Self-Defense Force at home. And Japan could become part of multinational defense consortia such as that for the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—collaborations that would bring new innovation to Japan's industry.

All three steps highlight the scope Japan has to deepen defense ties with allies and neighbors despite the constraints imposed by the constitution. For more than 50 years after World War II, Japan had almost no defense ties other than with the U.S. Tokyo's mutual defense alliance with Washington made it a de facto part of the American-led liberal security network during and after the Cold War. But Japan's strained relations with most of its neighbors led not only to political isolation but an insular security stance.

Now Tokyo is accelerating efforts to build better military relations with its neighbors. In part this continues a shift that began slowly in the 1980s and led to the 1997 U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which opened the door to mutual defense activities in areas surrounding Japan.

But the recent uptick in activity is mainly driven by China, and in particular Beijing's growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. This issue is explicitly noted by all regional states in public announcements. While Tokyo isn't trying to create a fully functional alliance system which would be difficult given outstanding tensions with many neighbors over its World War II past, it is cautiously and steadily expanding its military presence outside of its immediate neighborhood.

For the foreseeable future these joint activities are unlikely to go much beyond basic exercises. Nevertheless they serve an important role in shaping regional security arrangements on maintaining maritime stability. This is good for the region, bringing a major player into the circle of friends exerting pressure on China to maintain good behavior.

It is also good for Japan. The more that Japan creates effective relationships with regional partners, the less it will worry about depending solely on the United States for diplomatic support, even if it will remain dependent on Washington for effective security assistance, and the less it will feel isolated in Asia. It will also give Tokyo confidence in dealing with China, either as part of a larger coalition of like-minded nations or in the bilateral Sino-Japanese relationship.

The question now is how far Tokyo will carry this trend. Japan's leaders inevitably will have to fund the transformation of the Self-Defense Forces into a truly 21st-century force capable of meeting the defensive challenges of the region. This means providing, above all, the resources necessary to ensure that Japan is able to defend itself against China's potential threats, be they missiles, advanced fighters, submarines or surface vessels.

Should Tokyo choose to do so, the course is fairly straightforward. Japan's submarine force is slated to grow to 22 or so from the current 16, but it should be increased to at least 30, to allow for effective defense of the country's vital sea lanes of communication. The government should select the F-35 as the country's next front-line fighter, to have the most advanced stealth capability possible as well as a potential ground attack capability that might be needed against North Korean missiles ranging Japan. Continued commitment to missile defense is also a requirement to ensure the viability of civilian population centers as well as important military facilities.

Sadly, it is unlikely that Mr. Noda or any successor will commit the funds necessary to make the new security strategy a fully realized reality. Japan will continue to modernize its forces, but not at the pace needed to keep up with the Chinese. Rebuilding from the devastating March earthquake and tsunami will swallow a large part of the Japanese discretionary budget over the next decade.

Yet even the modest steps Japan is taking are important. In a world in which only authoritarian states seem to be committed to building their militaries, creating stronger ties among liberal states with similar security concerns is a good approach. At the end of the day, such a strategy can lay the foundations for more enduring and revolutionary cooperation in the future.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI

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