Japan’s ruling coalition parties – the dominant Liberal Democrats (LDP) and junior partner Komeito – have hammered out a framework for legislation to implement the Abe Cabinet’s decision last year to reinterpret the nation’s pacifist Constitution. The new interpretation and emerging legal framework broaden the range of roles and missions for the country’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) deemed necessary and allowable to ensure national security, while seeking to abide by the public’s enduring Constitutional commitment to eschew war-making capabilities and the settlement of international disputes by force.
It’s a fine line to traverse, fraught with political and legal controversy. But the policy changes have proceeded pretty smoothly, considering the stakes involved. Various factors are at play. The changes have occurred incrementally, in a process begun long before last July’s Cabinet decision, including during the 3 years the opposition Democratic Party (DPJ) was in power. The LDP-Komeito coalition holds a commanding two-thirds majority in the Lower House of the Diet, meaning it faces few legislative hurdles in its path, as long as the ideologically divergent parties manage to remain allied. And polls consistently show that the public, while open to modest expansion of the SDF roles and missions, remains very wary of straying from the core principle enshrined in the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of the Constitution, which greatly inhibits the impulse of many in the LDP, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for more robust, semiautonomous military capabilities for Japan. In the back rooms of complicated coalition politics, the more liberal Komeito has tended to reflect the public's cautious sentiments about collective self-defense.
In effect, a fledging, uneasy policy equilibrium is settling in, providing Abe and his supporters with anxious anticipation of further change, giving traditional liberals some confidence that Article 9 has withstood a powerful, frontal assault, and leaving liberal and conservative realists fairly satisfied that increased deterrence against a rising China is taking shape.
Among other things, the impending new security legislation will allow for more active SDF involvement in UN peacekeeping operations, and allow for Japan to provide logistical and other support for the militaries of other nations involved in international peace efforts. The definition of “self-defense” could also expand to areas far beyond Japan, to include for example mine-sweeping in the Persian Gulf in times of conflict, to ensure a steady flow of oil supplies from the region. (Komeito still has reservations on this front that have yet to be worked out.)
But the biggest changes will probably come in the day-to-day functioning of the US-Japan security relationship, which many analysts for years have warned is largely an alliance on paper alone, woefully unprepared for a crisis because almost all vital integrated functions are either severely lacking or are non-existent. The traditional interpretation of Article 9 barred excessive “integration” with the armed forces of another nation, including treaty-ally America, out of concern that Japan might inadvertently contribute to US use of force in ways that had nothing to do with the defense of Japan. In practice, this has meant lack of clarity on even the most basic of issues, including which facilities in Japan would be available to the huge influx of US forces that would occur in Japan in the event of a crisis, such as hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. One US official said recently: “Japan doesn’t have a clue about the extent of our buildup in Japan that would occur in a Korean contingency.” Another insider commented: “Up to now, we haven’t tried to pin these things down, for fear of narrow, legalistic answers far below our needs.”
Now, with the new interpretation of the Constitution about to take legislative form, the US and Japan can proceed to finish an ongoing upgrade of bilateral defense guidelines that will allow for more joint contingency planning, sharing of intelligence and other information flows, and division of actual military roles and missions in the event of a crisis in or around Japan.
To further explore the emerging Japanese security policy, and the implications for the US-Japan security relationship, we turn to three Washington-based specialists: Gregg Rubinstein, a former State and Defense department official with three decades of experience in the US-Japan security relations; Yuki Tatsumi, a security specialist at the Stimson Center; and, Jim Przystup of the National Defense University. First up is Mr. Rubinstein.
‘Collective self-defense opens door to real US-Japan alliance’
Gregg A. Rubinstein is director of GAR Associates, a Washington-based advisory firm specializing in US-Japan security matters, particularly defense technology cooperation, and for 30 years has been known as one of Washington’s top experts in this field. Mr. Rubinstein spent 12 years in the State and Defense departments working on US-Japan defense issues, including 7 years in the US Embassy in Tokyo. Since 1993 he has been an advisor on Japan Programs to the under-secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. He has degrees from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and also studied at Sophia University, Tokyo.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The public supported Prime Minister Abe’s handling of the recent hostage crisis, including opposition to ransom payment. But the public also seemed to be wary of any military-related response, or to see any policy implications much beyond renewed diplomatic efforts. Any surprise there?
RUBINSTEIN: No. The illusion persists among many in Japan that if the country were just to tread softly, no one would have reason to harm Japan. Even as Japan has moved toward more capable defense forces, the use of force remains illegitimate in popular perceptions. Some Japanese still blame the hostages for having created a meiwaku (annoyance).
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you see any policy fallout from the murder of the hostages?
RUBINSTEIN: There probably will not be much impact on visible policies. Quiet but more substantive coordination with international intelligence and security networks is more likely. There could be more attention on special forces/hostage rescue capabilities, but probably not using the Self-Defense Forces; more likely something akin to Germany’s GSG-9 (a unit of the federal police formed in the wake of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics).
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does the hostage crisis represent a “9-11” for Japan?
RUBINSTEIN: That seems overwrought. No doubt this incident has influenced views of security concerns. But the impact in Japan will be more incremental, and low profile.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Let’s look at the ongoing review of the bilateral US-Japan defense guidelines. Why was Japan anxious for the review?
RUBINSTEIN: Many in Japan came to the realization that they face a genuine threat from China – in contrast to North Korea, where threats seem largely hypothetical and manageable, as in the development of ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities. By contrast, posturing by China around Japan’s southwest flank poses a far more tangible challenge.
Along with the realization of the genuine threat facing Japan came a recognition that neither Japan’s defense capabilities nor the arrangements to work with US forces were sufficient to be truly effective.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What motivated the US to fully engage in the guidelines review?
RUBINSTEIN: Since the Bush-Koizumi era (2001-2006), the US and Japan have engaged in Roles, Missions, and Capabilities (RMC) dialogue to define an appropriate division of responsibilities for both ‘defense of Japan’ and regional security contingencies. RMC concerns cover a spectrum of issues, from threat perceptions and security strategies, to defense planning and acquisition of relevant capabilities. Progress in RMC talks would, in effect, ‘operationalize’ what has until now been a largely passive security relationship, in which the US provides a security umbrella and Japan provides bases, but for the most part the two sides really don’t interact on operational matters.
Until recently, progress on RMC dialogue has been halting and incremental, reflecting policy and political constraints in Japan, as well as lack of a perceived threat that would compel action to address them. China has provided an incentive for such action. It is in this sense that the US welcomed the Japanese government’s interest in revisiting the guidelines, whose provisions will form an essential framework for implementing RMC policy measures – so much so that RMC dialogue is now folded into guidelines review.
Each side’s goals for guidelines revision may not always intersect. As always, the US wants to focus on the most direct/immediate threat -- hostilities in Korea. Japanese officials have sought more explicit guarantees of support in the event of future confrontations over the Senkaku islands and elsewhere on Japan’s southwest flank. Nonetheless, the common interest in deepening substantive alliance cooperation certainly outweighs such differences in emphasis.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How significant is the difference in threat perception between the US and Japan with respect to China and North Korea?
RUBINSTEIN: Differences here seem more a matter of degree than kind. Japanese government and public perceptions tend to take a more narrow view of the threat from North Korea, seeing it as relatively contained – and something that will recede with the inevitable unraveling of the Kim regime.
On the other hand, US concerns with Korea cover a wider spectrum of issues, from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and war on the Korean Peninsula, to dealings with China – in all cases without a clear vision on how to manage them.
Both the US and Japan want China to fit into a rules-based international system. Both want regional stability, as well as to fend off Chinese challenges to Japanese sovereignty.
But the order of those priorities probably differs, with Japan naturally focused on aggressive Chinese posturing in the area, and relatively less concerned with an agenda to foster ‘China as a constructive stakeholder.’
DISPATCH JAPAN: What new or expanded roles do you expect Japan to commit to?
RUBINSTEIN: The first part has to do with finally making fully operational existing provisions for US access to Japanese facilities and resources in a crisis. For the most part, those access provisions are in the 1997 defense guidelines, but have not been actualized.
The second part has to do with expanded Self-Defense Force operations in coordination with US activities in such priority areas as surveillance, maritime patrol, and more integrated air and missile defense.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do Japan’s capabilities fall short in any key areas?
RUBINSTEIN: Where don’t they fall short? Japan has accumulated an impressive inventory of defense hardware, but decades of security policy has emphasized deterrence and development of the country’s industrial and technology capabilities. There was little concern with real-world operations – “war-fighting” as we are wont to phrase it.
The result is all too evident. Across-the-board, Japan suffers from shortfalls in equipment performance, logistics support, training, and interoperability among the SDF services, as well as with US forces. Despite relatively high acquisition budgets, Japan has notoriously inefficient procurement practices that waste much of this funding, and exacerbate operational shortcomings.
This situation is starting to change, in recognition of the need for true operational capabilities. We can see this in Japan’s recently announced National Security Strategy, as well as in the Defense Ministry’s new procurement and industrial/technology base strategy.
But it is never easy to change ingrained practices and attitudes, especially in an environment as insulated as that which has surrounded Japan’s defense community.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do the guidelines review and the collective self-defense issue overlap?
RUBINSTEIN: Exercising the right of collective self-defense (CSD) is an essential enabler of the envisioned new guidelines. Under the long-standing interpretation of the Constitution, which barred the exercising of collective self-defense, there could be no real degree of interoperability between the SDF and US forces in planning, exercises, or development of mutually-reinforcing capabilities.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will authorization of collective self-defense most affect Japan’s potential out-of-area roles, such as mine-sweeping in the Persian Gulf, or will the impact be greater on contingencies in areas around Japan?
RUBINSTEIN: A more realistic approach to CSD will impact US-Japan interaction on everything.
Look at contingencies in or around Japan. In the real world, it is simply not possible to distinguish between threats targeted only at Japan or Japanese forces, and those of friends and allies in the immediate area.
The constraints imposed by the traditional ban on CSD would almost certainly undercut any US effort to fulfill its Treaty obligations to the defense of Japan.
Consider the much-touted US-Japan collaboration on ballistic missile defense. Under the pressures of a real-world emergency, how could anyone expect an effort to distinguish what missile is going where? That would be absurd. But as long as the traditional ban on CSD was in effect, neither American nor Japanese officials could have serious expectations of SDF operational involvement, so there was no reason to openly challenge such absurdity.
The same applies to overseas contingencies. Political and bureaucratic interests in security policy have differing views on how the new approach to CSD should be applied overseas. In practice, out-of-region SDF deployments will likely remain limited to peace-keeping and humanitarian relief efforts.
I do not see the US pressuring Japan to exceed this general limit on CSD-authorized operations. US concerns would more likely focus on more realistic rules of engagement. Can anyone imagine a repeat of the Iraq War scenario, when Ground Self-Defense Force engineers had to be protected by other allied forces -- and could not come to their defense -- because rules of engagement precluded their use of weapons? Whatever overseas operations SDF units may undertake, they must do as full participants with international partners – as assets, not liabilities.
DISPATCH JAPAN: On a practical level, how will the new policy on collective self-defense most affect the US-Japan alliance?
RUBINSTEIN: For more than five decades the US and Japan have had a mutual security relationship that both sides call an alliance. However, in defense terms, that word implies a degree of collaboration in planning and operational interaction that, with only rare and narrow exceptions, has not existed.
The authorization of collective self-defense will remove a major barrier to real collaboration, allowing the US and Japan (and third country allies/partners) to not just coexist, but interact.
DISPATCH JAPAN: It seems that planning, command communications, and intelligence sharing would be particularly affected.
RUBINSTEIN: This will likely be true at first, but these planning and support functions are not an end in themselves; they will also enable operational cooperation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: I specifically meant enhanced battlefield situational awareness, from missile defense to monitoring of North Korea jets or submarines in a contingency.
RUBINSTEIN: Yes, that would naturally flow. Intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance capabilities – known as ISR in military jargon – are crucial in all these areas, and more. As things stand now, there are major gaps in both deployed US and Japanese ISR resources, which would be priority matters for any planning dialogue.
DISPATCH JAPAN: A US-Japan unified command seems far-fetched, but do you foresee collective self-defense paving the way for joint US-Japan task forces?
RUBINSTEIN: A unified command structure is unlikely. It is not necessary from an operational standpoint, and would be fraught with political complications. But joint task forces are another matter. The beginnings of such arrangements are already evident in the joint missile command center at Yokota Air Base.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What are the strategic factors underlying the recent revisions in Japan’s defense export policy?
RUBINSTEIN: It is a significant, but carefully controlled change. The previous “Three Principles” (3Ps) policy on arms exports was interpreted as a ban on almost all such activity. The new 3Ps language on “defense exports” recognizes such transfers as a legitimate instrument of policy, but will still be subject to extensive conditions and controls.
US officials have welcomed the new 3Ps as support for closer collaboration on defense acquisitions. This does not mean that, as sometimes suggested, this new policy is meant as a gesture to the alliance. Nor is it a response to industry lobbying in Japan. The new 3Ps policy is an instrument to implement Japan’s National Security Strategy. In this case, the goal is more effective defense acquisition, and a rescue of what is now a crumbling defense industrial base.
As such, the new 3Ps policy complements the Defense Ministry’s new industrial/technology base strategy by emphasizing increased international collaboration in defense acquisition programs. The new 3Ps and the MOD’s industrial strategy are two sides of the same coin.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So economics is a factor.
RUBINSTEIN: The issue is not promotion of defense exports as an end in itself. The goal is increased access to resources in the international defense community. It is also an acknowledgment that earlier efforts to maximize autonomy in defense production and procurement have proven unrealistic.
In addition, the Japanese government’s interest in defense-related trade focuses not only on traditional defense contractors. Equally important is the effort to engage a broader sector of Japanese industry that can offer defense-applicable commercial products.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will this increase Japan’s foreign policy influence?
RUBINSTEIN: Defense exports are a powerful instrument of foreign and security policies, widely used to strengthen political and defense ties, as well as to promote trade. But, as all significant players in this game know, defense exports can become a double-edged sword. Entanglements in arms programs inherently open the way to abuse and corruption, pose risks of unintended proliferation, and can become dangerous when one-time friendship and/or partnership relations sour.
All arms exporting nations face these issues. Even perennial ‘good guy’ Sweden, which in many ways serves as a model for emerging Japanese defense industrial and export policies, has run afoul of serious controversies in India and the Persian Gulf. In this sense, the Government of Japan is well advised to approach future defense transfers in an incremental manner that establishes solid and transparent precedents.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Notwithstanding these changes in Japan’s defense policies, strategic relations with South Korea remain troubled.
RUBINSTEIN: From an operational standpoint, more constructive Japan-ROK engagement would benefit trilateral US-Japan-ROK collaboration in such critical areas as contingency planning, ISR, and missile defense. NK would be better contained, and China given more pause before trying to disrupt US cooperation with both countries.
How much progress can we make here given bloody-minded attitudes evident on both sides? Trying to work such issues now must be very frustrating for the officials involved.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Under these circumstances do you expect Prime Minister Abe to be invited to address a joint session of Congress?
RUBINSTEIN: No doubt that Abe wants the recognition – for Japan and himself – that such an event would bring. But three serious concerns stand in the way. One is a real breakthrough on Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations; Abe needs to be seen as having overcome powerful protectionist interests like Zen-no (Japan Federation of Agricultural Associations) to deliver meaningful concessions. The second is controversy over Japan’s wartime legacy – history revision and comfort women in particular. The third would be inevitable reaction from China and Korea to any perceived glorification of Abe.
Even if posturing by China and Korea are put aside, TPP and wartime legacy concerns have stirred real controversy in the media as well as Congress. Unless Abe is prepared to make real gestures in both areas, efforts to arrange an appearance before Congress could prove embarrassing to him personally as well as a setback for bilateral relations.