Japan Mulls Rearming to Defend Itself

By Michael Auslin

Has Japan finally been mugged by reality? Several policy moves in the past month suggest Tokyo has been rudely awakened to the dangers of an increasingly volatile region and is actually doing something about it. By pledging to buy advanced stealth aircrafts and starting to fight back against cyberwarfare, Japan is telling the world that it has figured out good intentions are no insurance against the destabilizing actions of aggressive regimes. It is an apt lesson for a troubled time in Asia and a lesson America's leaders should learn.

The new year opened with the news that Tokyo is developing a virus to disable computers used by cyber attackers. This comes after an unidentified hacker broke into the systems of defense contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries earlier this year, stealing sensitive information on military programs and nuclear power plants. In December, the upper house of Parliament was hacked by addresses originating in China. Ironically, the company entrusted by the government with developing the cyber counterattack, Fujitsu, was itself penetrated this past fall, leading to a crash in service at more than 200 local government websites.

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Secondly, the Noda administration announced in December a long-awaited relaxation of the ban on arms exports, which also served to choke off joint development of weapons systems. While a number of restrictions will remain, Japan will be able to move ahead with foreign cooperative development of some defensive systems, as it has been doing with the U.S. on the SM-3 missile interceptor.

Finally, in a widely noticed decision, the government said it would purchase the stealthy fifth-generation F-35 as its next frontline fighter. Many observers doubted Japan would agree to the hefty cost of buying and maintaining an unproven fighter, but it may provide a useful technological edge for the Air Self-Defense Forces for decades to come. If the F-35 lives up to its billing, Japan will become part of an informal allied air corps in Asia—flying the same plane and able to cooperate more closely with the U.S., Australia and South Korea.

These actions, taken together, are a notable swerve away from a decades-long adherence to the country's postwar "peace constitution." Over the years, successive governments tied themselves up in knots trying to present as nonprovocative a military posture as possible. Few laws restricting overseas activities were passed, but poor interpretations of general principles left policy makers isolated on the world stage.

Most notoriously, a cabinet interpretation denying the right of collective self-defense, even while upholding the principle, prevented the natural evolution of an alliance with the U.S. and resulted in tortuous Diet deliberations every time Self-Defense Forces were to be sent abroad. Similarly, the 1967 ban on arms exports was meant to prevent military items from being sent to belligerents, but wound up as a comprehensive ban blocking aid to smaller nations or other democracies. That same year, the Cabinet adopted an informal rule to limit defense spending to 1% of GDP.

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Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. This article is republished with the author's permission.

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