JS Izumo (DDH-183) just after her launch.


PEARL HARBOR (Nov. 3, 2008) The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force guided-missile destroyer JS Ashigara, DDG-178, makes her way pierside at Naval Station Pearl Harbor.



The current Japanese defense strategy is addressed in the 2005 National Defense Program Guidelines, which affirm that the country’s security depends on its defense forces and its alliance with the United States. Of Japan’s armed services, the maritime self-defense force is the most important, because it is responsible for safeguarding the sea lines of communication upon which the nation depends for its economic well-being.

Any question about this priority was settled by the 1973 oil crisis, an event that conclusively demonstrated Japan’s dependence on the SLOCs. Their defense was confirmed as a strategic priority beyond naval circles.

The mid-1970s Soviet emphasis on strengthening its Pacific Fleet emphasized this priority on a national level.

Tokyo reassessed its maritime priorities following the end of the Cold War. Both the 1995 NDPO and the 2004 Defense Program Guidelines (DPG) sought to delineate capabilities to confront a potential military problem in Northeast Asia. Of particular concern were, and remain, China’s naval modernization, exacerbated by forward-leaning activities in the East China Sea, and North Korea’s nuclear threats.

By the beginning of 2009, the JMSDF had reassessed its growth of the preceding two decades, as part of the drafting of a maritime strategy for the new century. Japanese maritime strategy had been understood and prominent during the Cold War. It is striking that it was only a short two decades after the Cold War’s end that the situation in Northeast Asia developed to the point where Tokyo recognized a need for a new, formal maritime strategy.

The essence of the new maritime strategy is twofold. The first aspect is defense of regional SLOCs, perhaps best defined by a triangle, the points of which are Tokyo, Guam, and Taiwan. This area is not dissimilar to that for which the JMSDF took ASW responsibility during the Cold War. It is not an easily managed responsibility, because it requires proficiency across the spectrum of both coast-guard and naval missions, from surveillance to defense against ballistic missiles.

Second, the JMSDF is tasked with fulfilling responsibilities under the mutual defense treaty with the United States. This relationship continues to provide the basis for Japan’s maritime defense efforts. In addition to expressing support for the U.S. policy reorientation, or “rebalancing,” toward East Asia announced by Washington in 2011, Tokyo’s policy is characterized by “enhancement of its defense posture in areas including the Southwestern Islands.” Japan has expressed concern about the “increasingly uncertain security environment in the Asia-Pacific region,” advocating strengthening “engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Tokyo’s primary national security focus was directed against possible Soviet aggression during the Cold War but now is focused on North Korea and China, the most likely maritime threats to Japanese interests. Cooperation with friendly third nations is being pursued; Tokyo invited Australia and the United States to the Sixth Pacific Island Leaders Meeting in Naga, on Okinawa, in May 2012.20 Such increased international cooperation is envisioned further in the possible defense of common interests with the Republic of South Korea (ROK) and India. Officially unspoken is the possibility of support for operations in support of Taiwan.

The 2011 DPG thus has long been under development and has led to increased, more open Japanese interest in security arrangements with other Asian nations, from South Korea to India. Interacting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been an objective of Tokyo since the 1977 Fukuda Initiative, whereby the then–prime minister announced a policy of increasing ties with Southeast Asia. By 2008 Japan was ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner.

Closer relations with India in the maritime security sphere were signaled in 2009, when an Indian navy task group conducted an exercise with the JMSDF in Japanese waters. In late 2011 the Japanese and Indian defense ministers agreed on further cooperation between their two navies.

Japan is pursuing similar, closer security relationships with both Vietnam and Australia. Tokyo and Hanoi signed a Memorandum on Defense Cooperation Enhancement in 2011. This agreement is aimed specifically at keeping “in check China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and East China Sea.”

Prime Ministers John Howard of Australia and Shinzo Abe signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in March 2007; this was reinforced in 2010, when the two governments signed an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which pledged closer military cooperation and provided for the “reciprocal provision of supplies and services between the Self-Defense Forces of Japan (JSDF) and the Australian Defense Force (ADF).” These agreements with Hanoi and Canberra demonstrate Tokyo’s increasingly active foreign policy. This development reflects Japan’s attempts to overcome further the still-present memories of World War II, concern about Chinese and North Korean activities, and perhaps a perceived weakening of U.S. military capability in East Asia.

These foreign-policy initiatives and the new defense guidelines will become effective only if the JMSDF is funded for the modernization and expansion required if the nation is to maintain its status as a major Asian maritime power. This funding is at issue, particularly for two reasons.

First, the 2011 Fukushima disaster is leading Japan rapidly away from reliance on nuclear power, a change that will increase the nation’s reliance on the seaborne import of fossil fuels from the Middle East. Second, Japan faces growing naval prowess on the part of South Korea and China, two countries with which it has sovereignty and maritime-resource disputes. A corollary to this second reason may be the shrinking U.S. fleet, with attendant major defense-budget reductions looming in Washington, a popular focus on economic problems, and the strong links between the U.S. and Chinese economies. This situation has the potential to turn American public support away from a Cold War–era defense treaty seen as no longer necessary.

Tokyo has set out in the DPG three security objectives: (1) to prevent external threats from harming Japan; (2) to contribute to improving international security so as to prevent threats from emerging; and (3) to contribute to global peace and stability and to human security.

The guidelines lay out steps to reach these objectives, including cooperation with the United States and with the international community. Defense will continue to form “the basic principles of defense policy,” as will the “three non-nuclear principles.” These were stated by Prime Minister Sato in 1967 and formally endorsed by the Diet in 1971; they are that Japan will neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons and will not permit their presence in Japanese territory. The objective of more participation in international peace cooperation activities is stated, as is an active role in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.

The “security environment surrounding Japan” is described as comprising a “number of so-called ‘gray zone’ disputes,” which are characterized as “confrontations over territory, sovereignty and economic interests” that do not pose a danger of escalation into wars but that are “on the increase.” The security environment is further marked by a “global shift in the balance of power,” as a result of “the rise of emerging powers and the relative change” of U.S. influence.

Although invasion of Japan’s home islands is not considered a viable threat, the guidelines identify issues of concern. These are “sustained access to cyberspace,” terrorism, piracy, North Korean nuclear and missile threats, China’s military modernization and lack of transparency, and increased Russian military activities.

The guidelines’ section on issues of concern is followed by a discussion of four “basic policies to ensure Japan’s security.” First are the nation’s own efforts, including improved capability “to collect and analyze information, while strengthening the information security system.” Second is the effort to enhance rapidity in decision making, to ensure a “coordinated and integrated response to contingencies.”

Establishment of an organization similar to the U.S. National Security Council is a third issue; the fourth is participation in international peacekeeping activities “in a more efficient and effective manner,” with “consideration of the actual situations of UN peace-keeping operations.” This caveat indicates the ongoing domestic political discussion about the depth of Japan’s participation in international security affairs. Most interesting of all is the shift in basic defense philosophy expressed in the resolution that Japan will build a “dynamic defense force,” superseding the current “basic defense force concept.” The decision means deploying military capability for purposes beyond the needs of deterrence, enabling the country to play “a more active role” in international security activities.

“Cooperation with its ally” is then emphasized, because the alliance with the United States is “indispensable in ensuring Japan’s peace and security.” Cooperation will include continuing strategic dialogue and collaboration, with a new emphasis on cyberspace security. Increased regional cooperation is noted, with specific mention of South Korea, Australia, India, and the ASEAN nations, as part of creating “a security network” in the Asia-Pacific region.

China, the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other European countries—even Russia—are mentioned as possible partners in addressing “global security issues.” This broadening of intended international cooperation seems to reflect two decisions: first that a more proactive posture is required to ensure Japan’s security, and second that U.S. military capabilities, especially in the maritime realm, are in decline. The first point reflects loosening of constitutional and psychological limits imposed in the post–World War II period.

Domestic political concerns are again addressed, in the point that “Japan will reduce the burden on local communities where U.S. military bases are located.” This step is couched in terms of maintaining the U.S. contribution to deterrence, the subject of the fourth major point. This is deterrence to ensure “security in the sea and air space surrounding Japan,” to include “responding to attacks on Japan’s offshore islands,” while trying to increase a stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific and globally.

The guidelines discuss the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), but not in detail. They note the importance of enhancing capability but acknowledge a “drastic review” of the defense budget. This has meant a continued stagnation of that budget, just as the nation is trying to improve military efficiency through increased joint capability and focusing on defense of offshore islands. A list of steps to increase efficiency—to “maximize defense capability”—is provided, but even if such general measures are taken, the thrust of Tokyo’s determination to reduce military expenditures cannot be overcome by more verbiage.

In sum, Japan’s 2010 DPG and 2011 DPG reflect a perception that the nuclear threat that was the focus of the Cold War has ended, replaced by conventional security threats. China is the center of this concern, with North Korea its acolyte. The latter’s ballistic-missile tests in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013 have reinforced this perception of Pyongyang. The guidelines’ emphasis on building a dynamic instead of a defensive force indicate an intention to enhance the JSDF’s proactive capability, especially with respect to the Senkakus and Takeshima; this capability is also reflected in the aim to exercise a greater international role, a notable change from the 2004 DPG’s focus on deterring external threats from reaching Japan.

Tokyo’s concerns about China as a military threat to Japanese security interests are clear. They are most evident in the goal of increasing the ability to defend the Senkakus, but they are also notable in the complaint about Beijing’s lack of transparency regarding the composition and missions of its military. Tokyo’s concerns are based on experience, such as the fact that in fiscal year 2010, 80 percent of the emergent flights by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) were in reaction to Russian or Chinese incursions into the nation’s airspace.

Concerns with China’s growing military strength and naval operations have increased in recent years. In mid-2011 the Japanese government expressed its unease with “China’s growing assertiveness and widening naval reach in nearby waters.” This sentiment was repeated in Japan’s 2011 defense guidelines and has been followed by direct actions.

Japan is renaming many of the privately owned and other, previously unnamed, land features in the East China Sea, sovereignty over much of which is disputed by Beijing. Also, additional monitoring facilities are reportedly planned. This move is intended to strengthen Tokyo’s sovereignty claims over not just the Senkakus but also the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas fields in the area.

North Korea’s threatened development of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching Japan certainly concerns Tokyo, but China’s increased military capability and pugnacious attitude is viewed as even more threatening. A third, if less intense, threat is perceived from Russia, with the considerable reduction of Moscow’s military forces in Asia offset by its refusal to discuss returning to Japan control of the southern Kurile Islands it occupied at the end of World War II.

These various threats are not simply perceptions. North Korea in the past few years has engaged in hostile activities, including sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong six months later. Numerous incidents involving North Korean and Chinese fishing boats have also occurred, during which neither Pyongyang nor Beijing has evinced interest in compromise.


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