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Japan Must Resource Its New Defense Plan

December 14, 2010

By Michael J. Green, Senior Adviser and Japan Chair, CSIS, and Nicholas Szechenyi, Fellow and Deputy Director of the Office of the Japan Chair, CSIS

The government of Japan will soon publish a strategy document known as the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) outlining the fundamental tenets of Japanese defense policy and establishing parameters for defense spending over the next five to ten years. This is the first NDPG since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) assumed power for the first time last year and will be released amid a lively debate in Japan about how best to craft a security strategy in the wake of recent provocations such as the March Cheonan disaster, the September Senkaku incident, and Pyongyang’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island on November 23.

Japanese media reports suggest the NDPG will introduce the theme “dynamic defense capabilities” as a strategic framework for defense policy, meaning a departure from core principles focused on homeland defense, toward a more proactive posture to deter North Korea and China and support international security efforts such as the fight against terrorism. This is exactly the kind of strategic flexibility Japan needs right now and shows the promise for realism under the DPJ that we identified in the CSIS Japan Chair Platform “Green Shoots” a month ago. The report represents a consensus across the lines of the DPJ and the previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments.

That is the good news. The question is whether the current embattled government of Naoto Kan will be able to muster the political will to actually resource the strategy. The DPJ has an unfortunate pattern of promising big things (cap and trade, an East Asia Community, the Trans Pacific Partnership, reform of the tax system, etc.) and then failing to deliver when the policies became politically inconvenient. Any assessment of the NDPG therefore has to take into account both the strategy (which is impressive) and the resourcing (which is still uncertain).

According to press accounts thus far, the NDPG will emphasize the defense of Japan’s southern islands in response to China’s increased presence in the East China Sea and propose the reallocation of resources from the Ground Self Defense Force to the Air and Maritime Self Defense Forces by reducing the number of GSDF personnel by 1,000 and drastically reducing the inventory of tanks; promoting upgrades for F-15 fighters; increasing the submarine fleet from 16 to 22; and boosting the Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet from four to six. This denotes a practical shift away from the obsolete homeland defense strategy that prevailed under the Soviet threat during the Cold War. It is a realistic strategy.

However, the fact remains that reallocations alone will not build the force necessary to execute the strategy. Japan’s defense spending has already decreased for eight consecutive years (excluding costs associated with the Special Action Committee on Okinawa and realignment of U.S. forces). The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) 2010 Yearbook. lists Japan sixth among 15 countries with the highest military expenditure in 2009 (in US dollars at current prices and exchange rates) with China second and the United States first. But SIPRI also points out that China’s military spending in 2009 was 15% higher in real terms than in 2008. If the NDPG is to focus mainly on the challenges associated with China’s rise, then if anything Japanese outlays should increase, but the indication thus far is that the current government will only seek to sustain current levels consistent with an unofficial cap at approximately one percent of GDP. Reports indicate the five-year defense budget, or Mid Term Defense Plan, to be released in conjunction with the NDPG will total 23.49 trillion yen, which is 750 billion yen less than the previous five-year budget unveiled in 2004. (The annual defense budget for next fiscal year is expected to increase by 10 billion yen.)

The business community and defense experts in the DPJ tried to address the budget problem by advocating the relaxation of Japan’s three arms export principles to facilitate defense industrial cooperation with the United States and other countries that would yield advanced capabilities in much less time and for much less than it would cost to develop those capabilities indigenously. But hopes for such a display of “dynamism” by the central government were dashed recently when Prime Minister Kan decided to postpone discussions on the non-export principles in deference to the leftist Social Democratic Party (SDP), whose help he desperately needs to pass critical budget-related legislation in the Diet this coming spring. The minority SDP is now “two for two” in terms of hindering security policy after urging Kan’s predecessor Yukio Hatoyama to advocate the removal of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Okinawa prefecture last year, which he eventually deemed unrealistic after several months of dithering that caused major distraction if not damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Now advocates of a more realistic security policy in Tokyo are worried the Socialists will move next to block the procurement of more Aegis destroyers for missile defense or may try to push the defense budget down even further. The SDP is a marginal party in ideological and numerical terms, but has once again found itself with a potential casting vote in Japan’s unstable coalition politics.

Kan should not produce a robust defense strategy report just to let the SDP gut it as a condition for joining the coalition. The security challenges in Northeast Asia are serious and there is popular and bipartisan support for the direction to be articulated in the NDPG. The budget proposal as it now stands is less than sufficient. Further cuts and constraints would be disastrous.

Photo of the Japanese Air Self Defence Force F-15 T-4 by Y. Kanazawa, used under a Creative Commons license.

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