Japan Has a Ready-Made Defense Plan

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Nearly a month after implementing an informal ban on the export of crucial rare-earth minerals to Japan, China shows little sign of backing down. Formal protests by Japanese officials, including its trade minister, have had little effect. On top of that, the Japanese Foreign Ministry is also protesting about the return of both private fishing and government patrol vessels around the Senkaku Islands, the site where Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain last month sparked the current crisis. And there's not just the China threat: North Korea's nuclear program looms, too.

Just as Japan's regional environment seems more threatening, the government is confronting difficult decisions on the country's defense budget and security strategy. Fortunately, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has a clear roadmap on his desk, the final report of the government-mandated Council on Security and Defense Capabilities in the New Era, released in late August. If Mr. Kan follows through on the council's recommendations, it will be a good start to a new realism in Japan's security policies.

The Council was tasked with providing recommendations for the National Defense Program Guidelines, the strategy document that in turn shapes the military budget requests of the government. Formed by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the Council included some of Japan's leading businessmen and the former ambassador to the United States, Ryozo Kato. Since it was formed in February 2010, Sino-Japanese relations in particular have become steadily more strained, thus drawing even more attention to the commission's findings.

The Council concludes that Japan should be more proactive in its defense and security policies. This means ending its passive "Basic Defense Force Concept," built around the idea of "static deterrence," and instead embracing a "dynamic deterrent," featuring high-level military operational capability. In short, Japan should no longer sit on the global sidelines, and should become a more involved security player in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

The report sets out as Japan's national-security objectives: ensuring Japan's safety and prosperity, promoting the stability and prosperity of the surrounding region and the world, and maintaining a free and open international system. This places Japan as firmly as it's ever been on the side of upholding the postwar international order, from which it has derived so much of its national riches.

To do this, the Council argues that Japan should cooperate with the U.S. in improving the international security environment. This includes solid recommendations to "enhance ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) activities" and to promote defense cooperation with South Korea, Australia and India. If the government follows these recommendations, it will become a force in creating a community of liberal interests in the Asia-Pacific region, thereby offering a counterweight to China and its troubling support for North Korea and Burma. Perhaps most importantly, the Council clearly recognizes the importance of closer relations and cooperation with South Korea, Japan's natural partner in northeast Asia.

Finally, the Council realizes that intentions alone will not suffice. Japan must have "skin in the game," as the phrase goes. Thus, the country's Self-Defense Forces must maintain high-level operational readiness and be more mobile while increasing Japan-U.S. interoperability. In operational terms, the SDF should be more deeply involved in countering terrorism, supporting antiproliferation efforts for weapons of mass destructions, and promoting global defense cooperation, among other activities. For the world's third largest economy and America's key Asian partner, these are goals designed to raise Japan's global profile to levels it should have reached years ago.

Unfortunately, much of the Council's thinking is derived from a sense that the U.S. is losing its "overwhelming superiority" and will have a reduced security presence in the Pacific as China builds up its own naval and air power. Yet even as Japan begins to hedge on America's long-term credibility, the Council rightly calls for Tokyo to work even more closely with the U.S., in addition to spending more to ensure Japan has a more capable military. After a year of tense and deteriorating relations between U.S. and Japanese officials over the Futenma relocation issue, this statement should be welcomed by all supporters of the alliance.

Now it is up to the government to follow through on these welcome and much-needed recommendations. Unfortunately, the record in this regard is not good. Two previous commissions, both in the past decade, also called for increases in Japan's defense capabilities and for overturning the ban on collective self-defense. Both were also ignored by the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Japan's brief moment of international security cooperation after 9/11 has largely dissipated, although it has ships patrolling off the Horn of Africa in antipiracy missions.

Prime Minister Kan must decide what Japan's national-security objectives will be under his administration. His early response to the Chinese retaliation for the Senkaku Islands spat has been roundly panned in Japan, and his public support has dropped. Like their American counterparts, the Democratic Party of Japan may have discovered the limit of engagement with China, and may therefore be more willing to survey realistically Japan's regional security environment.

Should Mr. Kan decide to heed the words of the Council's report, then he will be forced to turn aspirations into reality. This will require first of all money, which runs counter to the trend of defense budget cuts for the past decade. At the same time it will require a national conversation about Japan's role in the world, which so far has not taken place. Finally, it may necessitate difficult discussions about the constitutional and legal framework that limits its international activities.

None of this will be easy, and much of it will be contested. Yet reality ultimately has a way of intruding into sterile academic discussions. The squeeze on Japan's companies and the roiling waters around the Senkakus are evidence enough that, as uncomfortable as it may be, Japan must think about how to shape the regional security environment before it gets shaped by others.

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