For a New Defence Policy in Japan

This article was published in Newsweek 

Japan Teeters on the Edge

8 November 2010

Geographically, Britain and Japan are cousins, two island nations off Eurasia. Geopolitically, they could not be more different. Western Eurasia, with its comfort blanket of NATO, two major nuclear powers, and a burgeoning EU defense profile, could hardly be more stable. Meanwhile, Japan has more than 4,000 islands, many potential flash points for regional peace.

Japan shivers virtually naked as military pressures mount in Eurasia. From the northern ocean borders with Russia to the subtropical seas coveted by China, competing claims to Japan's islands are inching up the global security agenda. While NATO members pledge to fight for one another, Japan has only a one-sided alliance with the U.S., which under the 1951 U.S.-Japan security treaty pledges young Americans to die in defense of Japan, but makes no reciprocal demand on young Japanese. The post-1945 settlement turned Japan into the world's first pacifist industrial superpower, one that neighbors never needed to fear, but one that now has reason to fear its neighbor.

Authoritarian nationalism is reasserting itself in Asia. After Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders decided the best way to turn young people away from democracy was to teach them patriotic nationalism. Following Orwell, leaders like Jiang Zemin made Japan the key hate country in  schools. In 2005 China's Education Minister said schools should "promote patriotic education" by "using the history of war against Japan."

Japan claimed the East China Sea's uninhabited islands following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. In September, after Japanese coast guards arrested a Chinese trawler skipper who strayed into the waters off the islands, China unleashed a barrage of nationalist emotion. Japanese cars and shops were trashed in Chinese cities. Japanese businessmen were arrested as hostages. And in a sinister move, China suspended the export of rare earths essential for high-tech Japanese products like electric automobiles. Japan caved in, and returned the arrested fishing-boat captain. This was a humiliating loss of face for Tokyo and a triumph for Chinese nationalism.

Japan looks on with fear as China's military arsenal grows in line with its economic power. Tokyo defense experts say Chinese military spending will equal that of the U.S. by 2020. Having long insisted that it is building up only territorial defenses, China is now building aircraft carriers and negotiating to open naval bases in the Indian Ocean. China is equipping its Air Force with modern warplanes as good as anything the West makes. China's arms industry is starting to export warplanes to Pakistan and Egypt at bargain prices.

How long before China decides that Japan would not summon the will to oppose a quick takeover of disputed islands  that lie thousands of kilometres from Tokyo? We saw India make a very similar calculation when it walked into Goa in 1961, and Argentina do the same when it invaded the Falklands in 1982.

Japan feels equally powerless when it looks at North Korea. Talking recently to parliamentarians from NATO countries, a Japanese Defense Ministry official said that despite North Korea's obvious weaknesses, and a GDP the size of Japan's defense budget, there was little Japan could do if Pyongyang launched a missile attack. Other nations have the military profile to deter such adventurism. Japan's Constitution forbids it from making or preparing for war. As a result, Japan has no nuclear or even conventional missile deterrent. Japan's defense budget has been cut each year so far this century.

With Washington playing balance-of-power politics, and China and India looming larger in that balance than democratic but aging and declining Japan, Tokyo faces hard questions. Should Japan put all its national-security eggs in Washington's basket? Does Japan need to reach out to democratic military alliances like NATO? Does Japan's no-war Constitution need amending so that it can build an Army commensurate with its economic power and regional challenges?

Like an aging relative sitting ignored at a party where everyone else is getting on famously, Japan needs new energy and new policies. A 21st-century security policy would be a good place to start.