Change is Required in Japan Security Policy

By – Oktay Kucukdegirmenci;

Following the visit of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years on August 2; China’s launch of missiles into waters less than 160 kilometers from Japan on August 4 as part of military exercises will likely increase Japanese public support for the country’s defensive military buildup. China’s missile launch into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) comes as the government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is preparing to issue a defense budget this month for a substantial increase in defense spending.

The defense budget spending plan will follow a year-end defense policy revision that is expected to include a call for Japan to purchase longer-range munitions to fend off China, which has replaced North Korea as the primary national security threat. Concerns about China’s military activities in the seas and skies around Taiwan and Japan have intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, because Japan is concerned that this sets a precedent for China’s use of force against Taiwan, and that the US cannot directly intervene to stop it.

On the other hand, in its annual defense report published on July 22, Japan plans to increase its military spending to 2 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Given Japan’s current economic size, this would make it the third largest military spender after the US and China. According to the report, Japan currently allocates only 0.95 % of its GDP to defense spending. China’s missiles give the Kishida government an important justification to strengthen its position on defense spending. The most important factors affecting this are the ongoing war in Ukraine, an ambitious China and the ongoing missile and nuclear weapons tests of North Korea. In compiling Japan’s new security strategy, Kishida said it sought to deepen the steps necessary to protect people’s lives and to “substantially support” Japan’s defense in five years. Moreover, he promised to improve the legacy of previous prime minister Abe Shinzo.

During the Taiwan crisis in 1996, China conducted a series of missile exercises to scare the island, but it was not enough to deter a US carrier task group from being sent to the area, as its military was weak. But today the conditions are different because China has since increased its defense spending nearly 20 times, strengthened its navy with hundreds of new ships and has ballistic missiles that can hit targets thousands of kilometers away. In short, it should be remembered that China today, is in the strongest military position in its history, and is no longer the China it was during the 1996 Taiwan crisis.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kishida said in a post-election speech after the parliamentary upper house elections on July 10 that they would move forward with their plans to change the constitution, deepen the parliamentary discussions on the constitutional revision, so that a concrete amendment proposal could be compiled. The planned constitutional amendment is to amend the 9th article of the constitution, which renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

According to Japan’s 1947 constitution, in order to amend the constitution, a two-thirds majority must be obtained in both houses of the parliament, followed by a majority in a nationwide referendum. The forces that advocate a revision of the constitution under the current circumstances have a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. Although there exists a majority in the lower and upper houses of the parliament to make the necessary constitutional amendment, there is not yet a consensus among the parties advocating the amendment on how to make the amendment. However, when the current regional and international cyclical developments are evaluated, it seems likely that pro-constitutional revisionist forces will meet on a common ground and agree upon changes. The main problem encountered here is whether a majority will be achieved in the popular referendum given that the Japanese people remember the painful memories before and during the Second World War and prefer a pacifist Japan rather than a militarist Japan. However, while it is a question of whether there will be a change in the situation after Abe’s assassination, China’s missile launch into Japan’s exclusive economic zone may cause the Japanese to develop a more positive view of constitutional revision in discussions on the pacifist constitution.

When the constitution was made and the security cooperation agreement was signed with the US, the international conjuncture was different from today. At that time, the security treaty with the US was designed for the Soviet threat, and the Yoshida Doctrine was sufficient for Japan’s security policy during the Cold War era. However, when the Cold War ended and the Soviet threat disappeared; naturally, changes occurred in the Asia-Pacific balance of power and in the international conjuncture. Security threats for Japan after this period were related to the rise of China and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats. In general, there was a period of economic rise in East Asian countries, a period in which the US and Japan lost relative power. Considering all these factors, Japan tried to add a new paradigm to the Yoshida Doctrine in the post-Cold War era, which is “multi-tiered” security. One pillar of this was the rearmament of Japan. In this context, the need for a reinterpretation of the restrictive 9th article of the constitution arose. The article forbids Japan from fighting outside of self-defense and outside of Japanese islands. In this context, Japan sent troops to many conflict regions of the world, especially Somalia, Syria, Cambodia and so on with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation missions. But efforts to provide a legitimate basis for the army have not yielded results so far. 

The alliance with the US—the most important tier of the multi-tiered approach is not enough for Japanese security because the circumstances are different today. The possibility of an “entrapment” through the alliance is much higher than during the Cold War period, especially since the conclusion of the new defense cooperation guidelines with the US in 1997. That is because the new guidelines paved the way for Japanese-US military cooperation in “situations in the regions surrounding Japan”, where the concept is defined situationally rather than geographically, and that both countries will “make every effort, including diplomatic efforts.” Moreover, unlike the 1952-60-78 agreements between the US and Japan, the concept of the Far East was replaced by the concept of Asia-Pacific. The guidelines encouraged a review of the legal framework for Japan’s national defense preparations in crisis and conflict situations. With the new guidelines, the debate about how Japan should respond in a conflict situation has become clear. In other words, Japan recognized that stability in the region was directly dependent on Japan’s security and that under the new international conditions, by providing active logistical support to US forces, Japan would go beyond allowing the US to use military bases in Japan. Japan is now likely to be trapped in a much wider geographical area. Japan’s policy towards Taiwan in recent years has further increased this possibility.

The word “situational” instead of “geographical” in these guidelines, and the term “Asia-Pacific” instead of “Far East” is a nuisance today because both terms can lure Japan into a trap when there is a crisis in Taiwan and even in the Philippines. In other words, it can trap Japan in any crisis in the East and South China Seas. In every possible crisis here, the opposing country will be China.

Japan’s distress stems from its inability to foresee the present in the 1990s because in the 1990s, as the US went to reduce troops from the Far East in the first years after the Cold War, Japan was the largest military and economic power in the region. Tokyo was trying to be more active in rebuilding the regional security order. The multi-tiered security approach at the time included both bilateral security with the US and multilateral security with the countries of the region, particularly through the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as sub-regional arrangements. In none of these was China assigned a role in building a regional security order. Today, however, China is the pivot country of the regional security order, especially through Conference on Cooperation and Confidence Building Measures and other multilateral mechanisms that China either founded or actively participated in.

Considering the current conditions in light of the aforementioned, Japan’s Yoshida doctrine-based and later additional multi-tiered security paradigms are not enough to meet the country’s security needs. Japan needs to move to a new foreign policy paradigm that takes into account today’s regional realities. In this vein, it should consider abandoning its multi-tiered security approach because Japan can neither maintain its security with constitutional revision (in which case it will trigger a regional security dilemma even more), nor avoid being entrapped by its alliance with the US. Even multilateral or sub-regional arrangements such as the Japanese-proposed East Asia Community, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Trilateral Security Dialogue and so on, that do not give a role to China in building a regional order, can meet security needs for Japan.

Japan was quite late in the revision of its constitution, the legitimation of the army, and rearmament, because in the first years after the Cold War, Japan’s military budget was higher than that of China. Today, China’s military expenditures are almost five times that of Japan. At the moment, there are two options in front of Japan; either it will become a nuclear power as soon as possible or the foreign policy paradigm will change. It is known that if Japan chooses to become a nuclear power, it is in a position to become a nuclear power in a short time. This option guarantees its security through nuclear deterrence. However, it is obvious that this can create a serious problem due to domestic and international perceptions. It is a matter of great curiosity how much people who have suffered from militarism and been victims of an atomic bomb in the past will support Japan becoming a nuclear power. Moreover, from an international perspective, first of all, Japan’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty amidst facing international reactions and sanctions is in question. Secondly, it would increase regional armament much more and perhaps the enthusiasm of other countries to become nuclear powers as well, since it could trigger a perception of a regional Japanese resurgence of militarism.

Japan’s new foreign policy paradigm should be that of “multilateral-accommodation”. This paradigm is based on abandoning the Yoshida Doctrine because at no level of the current multi-tiered security policy, China had any defined role in the regional security order, and we are not back in the 1990s. A foreign and security policy paradigm without China’s role is out of the question for Japan. Just like the Rhine Pact signed among Germany, France, England, Italy and Belgium in 1925 after the First World War, which prohibits the war among the parties, or the Briand-Kellogg Pact, which was signed in 1928 and included the important powers of the period, Japan must seek a way to compromise with China. However, it can be said that neither the Rhine Pact nor Briand-Kellogg Pact could prevent a war among the parties. This is exactly why a multilateral-accommodation is proposed, since a compromise between the two countries will not be enough. First, a bilateral accommodation should be reached between the two countries and, as in the multilateral-bilateral approach, this bilateral accommodation should be moved to a multilateral basis. Bilateral cooperation between the two countries can play a constructive role in the development of multilateralism. China and Japan should jointly assume leadership in a regional security arrangement. Japan already has two main security problems: the rise of China and nuclear and missile tests of North Korea. While the first threat can be overcome in this way, the second threat can also be mitigated through the relationship established on this ground with China since it should be expected that China’s influence on North Korea will become an option that can be used by Japan in this regard.

Oktay Kucukdegirmenci graduated from Balikesir University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration in 2015 in Turkey. In 2018, he completed his master’s degree at Atilim University, Department of International Relations in Turkey. Kucukdegirmneci is continuing his doctorate studies in the Department of International Politics at Shandong University, China. kucukdegirmenci, who carries out his studies in Chinese Foreign Policy, Japanese Foreign Policy, sino-Japanese Relations, Sino-Russian Relations and Cold War History.

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