DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: Japan’s pacifist identity is changing, slowly

1st December 2017 - 12:12 GMT | by Alice Budge in London


After a clear victory in the recent snap election, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were returned with a two-thirds majority in the lower house and a constitutional revision very much on the agenda.

A personal ambition of the prime minister’s since his victory in 2012, the recent elections and mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula saw debate on amending Article 9 of the country’s constitution reignited.

Article 9 has been the cornerstone of the nation’s pacifist identity since 1947. The ‘peace clause’ stipulates that ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes'.

However, ambiguity regarding the role of the Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) and the context within which they can be deployed has been easily exploited by governments to further either their pacifist or hawkish policies.

Abe has hinted how he might tackle the ambiguity issue of the SDF; one route would be to include a new paragraph within Article 9 directly addressing the role of the JSDF, which would provide the force with a clear constitutional basis.  

The other direction constitutional revision could take, according to Jeffrey Hornung, political scientist at RAND, would be to formally rename the JSDF as the ‘National Defence Force’ using the Japanese character for ‘military’.

Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor at the International Christian University, Tokyo, echoed this commenting that defining the JSDF as a military could remove the lack of transparency on how the Japanese forces can be deployed abroad.

‘This is not a political move…They view it as a strategic necessity. The constitution as it exists now makes it difficult to be proactive in securing Japan’s strategic interests in and around the East China and South China seas,’ he said in a conversation with Shephard. 

This view is not one ubiquitously shared, as security laws passed in 2015 - which have made it easier for Japan to operate independently and in coalition for narrow collective defence purposes - demonstrate that more politically appetising means of reforming Japanese defences exist.

‘I think it’s more symbolic. When you look at changing the name or just adding the SDF, for me the question is what does that actually do to change their roles and missions?’ Hornung said.

Possible hurdles in Abe’s efforts to revise the constitution include opposition from the LDP’s coalition partners who oppose amending Article 9, as well as the possibility of defeat in a national referendum on the revision.

Japanese public opinion has traditionally tended towards opposing the revision of Article 9 and, despite recent North Korean aggression, public opinion remains sharply divided on the issue.

The threat from North Korea is more likely to provide Abe with a boost in support for his defence policies and acquisition programmes designed to improve the technical capabilities of the JSDF.

‘I think it gives him some latitude to take a harder stance in terms of policies. Right now in the Ministry of Defence they’re revising their National Defence Programme Guidelines and their mid-term defence build-up,’ Hornung said.

Recently Abe has also suggested that he is willing to break the symbolic cap on defence spending of 1% of GDP, a move Hornung suggests is necessary.

‘I don’t see how they can continuously stick under that if they are serious about their own defences…When you look at what they want to do they cannot stay below that,’ he said.

‘To buy some of this equipment which they haven’t had in the past and which is viewed as offensive is a gradual process.’

Jeffrey Hornung, RAND

The gradual shift 

The extent of how the government plans to bolster Japans capabilities will become clear over the next six months as details emerge from the MoD’s review. The most significant aspect is likely to be the announcement of a review into the acquisition of long-range ballistic missiles.

According to Hornung, the MoD will assess the constitutionality of procuring possible offensive weapons, an asset the Japanese forces have not previously possessed, as well as what specific capabilities would be required and where they are needed.

‘To buy some of this equipment which they haven’t had in the past and which is viewed as offensive is a gradual process…I think what it does is ease the psychology of the Japanese public to get used to it.’

Such a procurement would represent a significant shift in the nature of Japanese acquisition programmes which, to date, have been deliberately defensive, with emphasis traditionally placed on ballistic missile defence (BMD), radar and naval patrol vessels.

Nagy suggested that under Abe the JSDF has seen a consolidation of its defensive capabilities in response to the two major threats currently facing Japan; a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China.

‘What we haven’t seen is a broad spectrum acquisition of many different kinds of missiles and other technologies that project power,’ he said.

‘Strategic thinkers are primarily trying to create a defensive network in and around these islands that allows them to respond to military vessels, coast guard vessels and a Chinese civilian fishing fleet.’

Japan’s defence of its southwest islands, a few of which are also claimed by China, have received recent budget increases across a range of defensive capabilities.

Alongside the build-up of amphibious and maritime capacity, in the form of new destroyers and new Soryu-class submarines, priority has also been placed on enhancing the JSDF's presence on the islands.

‘They’re making bases, radar systems, anti-ship and anti-air missile batteries. You see a lot of money going into that…All services are seeing bumps in their budgets for southwest defence,’ Hornung said. 

Concurrent to mounting tensions in the South China and East China seas is the looming threat to the north of Japan from North Korea who continues to fire ballistic missiles towards or over Japanese territory.

In response, the MoD has recently decided to allocate two Aegis Ashore facilities armed with SM-3 Block IIA missiles to the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force. These will be located in the Musumi training ground. An additional system is being considered as parts of Japan’s southwest islands would be left unprotected.

Probing the edges of export markets

There is little doubt that Japan will remain highly dependent upon the US for military equipment, such as the Aegis system. However, the establishment of the Acquisition Technology Logistics Agency (ATLA) in 2015 has further focused efforts on the development of indigenous capabilities and exports.

Abe has been keen to see Japan’s domestic defence industry expanded in an effort to reduce costs and aid the overall health of the economy.

Since 2012 his government has overseen further relaxations on exports of military equipment, which are now restricted to countries not involved in civil or regional wars, are not on UN sanctions lists and have ‘close relations with Japan’.

The regulations on military exports remain ambiguous, which has discouraged many Japanese manufacturers from making concerted efforts to break into the industry.

‘They’re very hesitant to reach out to other countries because there’s no precedent yet…Right now they’re still looking at the submarine deal that failed and saying, 'See, we can’t do that',‘ Hornung said.

He suggests that what is required is a build-up of momentum; Japanese companies should aim for smaller successes in the sectors of automation, robotics and sensors where they already enjoy a competitive advantage.

It remains to be seen if a possible sale of their C-2 transport aircraft to India will go through after Russia entered the competition. However, a recent announcement on a joint Japanese-UK development of air-to-air missiles indicates there is progress towards greater collaboration with partners beyond the US. 

Treading lightly

Navigating a very dynamic environment, Japan is treading a precarious path in its effort to successfully deter aggressors and bolster its defences whilst avoiding provoking already suspicious neighbours.

Nagy testifies that recent conversations with Chinese contacts have indicated that Japan’s recent acquisitions, deployments and rhetoric surrounding possible changes to the constitution are all demonstrations of a deliberate effort to contain China.

‘The Chinese see it as a containment strategy…They view Japan as doing the dirty work of the US. They’re going to push back against it really hard,’ Nagy said.

Concerns about a more powerful, belligerent China are likely to further fuel Japan's pursuit of strong and close relations with the US. Hornung believes this will take the form of a strengthening of the Alliance Coordination Mechanism to further facilitate closer bilateral defence cooperation.

‘Operationally we’ve seen Japan stepping up its escorts of US ships in their waters. I think we are going to see more of that. We might see more of it in the South China Sea.’

While it remains to be seen if Abe will achieve his long-held ambition to revise the constitution, it is apparent that with or without Article 9 reform, Japan is undergoing a gradual, gentle shift towards the possession of a modern, capable and fully equipped modern military force.


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