Tokyo is preparing to publish its first national defence blueprint in over six years, and it may be ready to countenance a degree of change to its stay-at-home military philosophy.
For decades the Japanese have kept their armies caged, ruling out any kind of military action that goes beyond strict self-defence. Japanese troops have not fired a shot since World War Two; the country’s arms industry is permitted just one customer, the Japanese government; and defence spending has flat-lined at below 1 per cent of GDP for over a decade, in contrast with a regional trend of growing military bankrolls.
Unfortunately for Japan, the world has changed so much that Tokyo seems to have been fighting the future in its attempts to protect the country’s pacifist principles. The United States, once the guarantor of Japan’s international security, no longer looks all-powerful in East Asia. The North Koreans threaten the Japanese with their nuclear weapons programme, and recently lobbed a test missile directly over Japan to make sure they realised. And China, whose relations with Japan remain as cranky as ever, is assuming the mantle of regional superpower while spending at least twice as much as Tokyo on defence – a margin that is widening every year.
Japan’s anguished attempts to come to terms with this shifting reality will be writ large in the new National Defence Programme Guidelines, the first restatement of the country’s strategic outlook since 2004. There is a sense that something must be done, but the less they can do the better.
The document is due for official release later this month, but the guts of the report have already been spilled by the Japanese press. The headline is a new doctrine of ‘dynamic defence capability’, which effectively means producing nimbler Japanese forces, capable of responding quickly and decisively to territorial threats. In practise this involves a new eastward focus to the remote Japanese islands, which seem increasingly threatened by China’s growing naval power, and also buying some new kit: extra submarines; new fighter jets, most likely the US-built F-35; and more Patriot missile defence batteries.
But it will take more than a worsening security environment – an actual North Korean attack, for example – to persuade the Japanese to take a truly proactive approach to defence. As things stand, “some people think Japan’s position is outdated, but not enough” to force a major policy shift, according to Yukari Kubota, a visiting associate professor at Osaka University .
In spite of China and North Korea – not to mention US pressure for Japan to develop its military role – Tokyo is refusing to increase defence spending, preferring to redistribute resources rather than give the military more rope. So while the Japanese are trying to confront their new environment, they remain committed to doing so from inside Japan, looking out.