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Foreign Policy

Japan’s 2014 Defense White Paper Bodes Ill for China-Japan Relations

Aug 29 , 2014

Following the release of Japan’s 2014 Defense White Paper, there can be no further doubt that under the nationalistic leadership of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo Japan is fundamentally altering the foreign and security policies and postures it has maintained since its WWII defeat.  

Stephen Harner

This change is informed primarily by the Abe government’s self-serving misperception of China, presumed to be its main adversary and security threat, and its avowal – also containing a high degree of wishful thinking, but also growing unease and doubt – of faith in the United States as Japan’s steadfast, permanent ally and defender. 

The change is also deeply expressive of Prime Minister Abe’s highly idiosyncratic, personal, complex, and fundamentally contradictory, even schizophrenic, vision of making Japan a “Proactive Contributor to Peace” (labeled vaguely oxymoronically, in Japanese, 积极的和平主义). This means that Japan is seeking to be “player” (even a leader) in coordinated regional and global military quasi-alliances against China, while remaining a quasi-sovereign protectorate of an occupying foreign power, the United States. 

The White Paper elaborates the key programs, structures, and concepts put into place seemingly overnight by a determined and tenacious Abe government. These include adopting a National Security Strategy (NSS), adopting new National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2014 and beyond (new NDPG), and establishing a National Security Council (NSC) in December 2013; Cabinet approval in April 2014 of a new “Three Principles of Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology” and a revised “Three Principles of Arms Exports;” and unveiling a Japan fiscal year 2014-2018 Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP).  

The White Paper explains how through Abe’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace,” to quote the NSS, “Japan will work to realize its own security as well as peace and stability with the Asia-Pacific region…based on the principle of international cooperation.”  

Outlining Japan’s Basic Defense Policy, the White Paper elaborates “three approaches:” (1) Japan’s own efforts; (2) strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance; and (3) active promotion of security cooperation.  

The “Role of the Defense Forces” is summarized as (1) “effective deterrence and response to various situations,” (2) “stabilization” of the Asia-Pacific region, and (3) improvement of global security environments.  Priority is to be placed on “maritime supremacy and air superiority,” and charting a major restructuring of Self Defense Forces (SDF) to enhance “rapid deployment capabilities.”   

Under the new NDPG half of army, navy, and air force SDF divisions and brigades will be reorganized into rapid deployment divisions, furnished with advanced mobility and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities. Such forces will be deployed mainly by aircraft, including U.S.-supplied C-2 transports and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. 

The White Paper cannot be read without considering that, within the highly unbalanced U.S.-Japan alliance, Japan’s defense strategy and posture is subordinated to American strategy and force structure in Asia.  

Indeed, the White Paper serves as a reminder that the relationship between Japan and the United States has been, and remains, dominated by the Pentagon. The primary forum for managing relations has been the “2+2” Security Consultative Conference, at which the Pentagon sets and dominates the agenda, with the State Department role largely that of public relations. 

Since the Obama administration adopted the “pivot” to Asia policy in 2010 – a policy reiterated in the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review – the dialogue between Tokyo and Washington has focused on strengthening joint operations with China as the thinly disguised presumed adversary, and on increasing the value of bases in Japan in a potential conflict with China.  

The White Paper presents as Japanese policy the agreement at the “2+2” meeting on October 2, 2013, attended by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, to (1) complete revising of “Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation,” by the end of 2014; (2) expand U.S.-Japan cooperation in cyberspace and space (both focused on the “China threat”), and Japanese defense cooperation with South Korea and Australia; and (3) realign U.S. forces as Japan presses forward to  “relocate” Futenma Marine Corp Air Station to Camp Schwab in Okinawa.  

On July 1, 2014, the Abe government, following a yearlong arm-twisting campaign, and against opposition of a majority of Okinawa residents, began delivering on its “2+2” commitment on Futenma “relocation,” cordoning off over half of Oura Bay (561 hectares) before beginning landfill work. 

But the new base project is not just relocation.  It is a massive new base, the first since the end of the U.S. Occupation, unrestricted in its future use.  As described by Gavan McCormack and Urashima Etsuko in the Asian Pacific Journal, August 18, 2014: 

  • [the newly designed base zone has] stretched the existing 50 meters exclusion zone around Camp Schwab to over two kilometers from the shoreline. Within that zone, 160 hectares of sea fronting Henoko Bay to the East and Oura Bay to the West [are] to be reclaimed and a mass of concrete to be imposed upon it, towering 10 metres above the surrounding sea and containing two 1,800 meter runways, a deep-sea 272 meter long dock and a complex of other facilities to be imposed upon it. 

What does Abe’s vision, as elaborated in the White Paper, portend for Japan-China relations?  Regrettably, and perhaps tragically, it is a medium term future of unrelenting, deadlocked confrontation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, accelerating wasteful competition in developing and deploying new weapons, increased tension and instability, and, particularly, fully justified Chinese indignation over Japan’s anti-China initiatives with other Asia countries. 

Given such a doleful prospect, perhaps the main question is whether future Japanese governments will continue to pursue Abe’s policies and approach. Here there room for cautious optimism – that is, that they will not.  

Abe’s vision, well described in the White Paper, is not the path to stability in East Asia, or for real security for Japan. That path would be one of declared neutrality, abrogation of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and dedication to the principles of Japan’s “Peace Constitution.” 

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. State Department officer (FSO), banker, and consultant in China and Japan.  He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  

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