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Global Perspective: Japan should review nat'l security strategy with seeds of peace in mind

By Ken Endo, Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, University of Tokyo

    A TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch with file image, is seen at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

    In his first policy speech as Prime Minister last fall, Mr. Fumio Kishida stated that Japan would review its national security strategy by the end of 2022. Now the need to deepen the debate over national security has acquired added urgency with Russia's aggression in Ukraine, in addition to the intensifying U.S.-China confrontation and North Korea's nuclear missile buildup. After all, Japan is in a rare geopolitical position in the world of having three unfriendly nuclear powers as direct neighbors.

    Some believe that this is the best chance for Japan to reform its postwar system and expand its arsenal. Public opinion also seems to be supporting this move. According to a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun in late May, two-thirds favor acquiring the ability to "counterattack" on enemy territory, and 76% support a "substantial" or "moderate" increase in military spending.

    Japan has so far limited its military spending to about 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP), while China has increased its spending by about 39 times in 30 years, currently spending four times as much as Japan does each year on its military. China has also rapidly expanded its arsenal of nuclear warheads, deploying 1,250 medium-range missiles and reportedly conducting test launches up to 200 times a year. Compared to this, what North Korea is doing is close to nothing.

    This is not to say that China is about to launch a war of aggression anytime soon. The lessons of Ukraine are that (1) nature (e.g., straits) can be a significant obstacle to aggression, (2) human resistance can inflict tremendous damage on the aggressor and (3) Western support and sanctions can have a substantial effect.

    On the other hand, what we saw in Ukraine also showed that it is extremely difficult to stop aggression from the outside when a country (1) is dissatisfied with the status quo and (2) has gained the power to change it with (3) deepening dictatorship.

    China does not rule out military unification of Taiwan and builds up its capabilities while deepening its dictatorship at home -- and this should be a cause for concern. China's annexation of Taiwan would be a direct territorial issue for Japan, since Taiwan's claim over Japan's Senkaku Islands has led China to declare its possession of the islets. Furthermore, if U.S. forces stationed in Japan were deployed under Article 6 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the event of a contingency over Taiwan, Japan could be attacked by China. Therefore, it is impossible for Japan to assume that it has nothing to do with Taiwan.

    The United States, on which Japan relies for its defense, is politically unstable. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have problems with their facilities, shortages of critical components and ammunition and difficulties in procuring personnel. In other words, there is a set of reasons why the momentum for military expansion is growing.

    The problem is what comes next. Will Japan wisely allocate precious financial resources in line with the country's national interests, without causing unlimited military expansion? Let us consider this from the standpoints of both military rationality and political reason.

    First, militarily speaking, the threat, a product of intentions and capabilities, manifests most acutely in the waters and airspace around Taiwan, including the Senkakus. While North Korea basically intends to defend its own regime, and Russia will be glued to Europe for the next 10 years, China's challenge is on a different dimension. While this includes cyber and space domains, the biggest change in the past decade or so is that the Chinese have obtained the ability to deny U.S. forces access to the vicinity of Taiwan and now continue to acquire the technology and equipment to deploy their own forces in an integrated manner beyond the area around Taiwan.

    With this in mind, the U.S. Marine Corps is undergoing a transformation to ensure its survival. It is actually preparing for warfare in which small units and ships attached to the front lines maneuver to capture enemy movements, use intelligence infrastructure to cooperate with allies and attack and hide as needed. This is the so-called "stand-in forces" concept.

    The SDF also has a few amphibious task forces, but should be reconstituted on a larger scale, in line with the realignment of the U.S. Marine Corps, and focus on preventing China from gaining superiority in the sea and air domains by training and upgrading its personnel, infrastructure and integrated mobility capabilities. This fits within the framework of the traditional "exclusive defense" posture.

    The deployment of intermediate-range missiles, on the other hand, is problematic. The deployment of remodeled Japanese missiles with an extended range of 1,000 kilometers and U.S. hypersonic glide missiles with a range of over 2,700 kilometers are said to be useful in "deterring" their adversaries from attacking. With these missiles, it becomes possible to hit enemy bases and slow down the deployment of their air power in the event of an attack. This is the so-called "counterattack capability."

    However, the presumed opponent in this case is a nuclear power. Even hundreds of expensive missiles could deliver only limited results with conventional warheads. It is conceivable that the other side could use equipment and tactics that could slip past such missiles. It is not clear whether those missiles would be strong enough to "deter" a nation that intends to attack.

    The desire to possess a "counterattack capability" may be based on considerations other than military rationality. It may be the uneasiness of not having a countermeasure to the offensive capability of an opponent, or the intention to better manage diplomatic relations with our ally, the United States, by providing medium-range missile capabilities, of which Washington does not have enough.

    Is such military expansion in line with political reason? Security is determined by a two-pronged approach: to threaten (deter) or to reassure (provide reassurance). The "counterattack capability" is only offensive from the point of view of the other side, posing a threat constantly. Implementing this seemingly "defensive" capability introduces a security dilemma in which both sides regard each other as "aggressive," resulting in the creeping expansion of their armed forces.

    Moreover, by embarking on such "deterrence," Japan would be breaking the shackles of its "exclusive defense" policy that it has managed to maintain since the end of World War II. This restraint itself has been Japan's reassurance to other nations, but if it were removed, the credibility resources of a peaceful nation would be worn away.

    Still, it may well be that Japan will embark on military expansion and intimidation (deterrence), in response to the other country's military buildup and the unreliability of the United States. Even in such a situation, it is not impossible to make good use of time and plant the seeds of reassurance. If Japan's conversion is triggered by the other party's military buildup, Tokyo should make it clear, no matter how difficult it is to persuade the other side, that if the other party stops its military buildup, Japan's military buildup could also be reversed.

    This is how Europe decided to deploy intermediate-range missiles at the end of the 1970s: If the Soviet Union, which had deployed similar missiles earlier, removed them, the West would also stop deploying them. This is what is called a double-track decision.

    You bind your hands by assuming that your adversary never changes under any circumstances. What we should do instead is try to influence the other party by communicating our intention to change when the other side changes. Once military expansion gains momentum, it is difficult to stop. We should look ahead carefully, assess our needs with caution and proceed while planting the seeds of a peaceful transition, so that our move will truly serve our own security and interests. Otherwise, we will be strangling ourselves.

    Profile: Ken Endo

    Born in 1966, Ken Endo graduated from Hokkaido University and received a doctorate in political science from Oxford University. He was an expert researcher at the European Commission's "Workshop for the Future," a visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, a visiting professor at Taiwan University of Political Science, and a professor at Hokkaido University. He specializes in European politics and security, and served as a commissioning editor of the eight-volume series "Nihon no Anzen Hosho" (Japan's Security).

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