Priorities for Japan’s Defense Policy


Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has moved to hike the defense budget for the first time in 11 years and has called for a revision of Japan’s basic defense guidelines. How should we evaluate the new administration’s approach to defense and security policy?

Following last December’s election victory by the Liberal Democratic Party, its leader, Abe Shinzō, started his second term as prime minister (having previously held the post for a year in 2006–7). Among the first actions he took after forming his cabinet was to call for a review of Japan’s security and defense policies. The new prime minister wants to tackle some matters that were raised during his previous administration but that remained pending when he stepped down for health reasons. Also, he believes that the policies adopted during the three years of government by the Democratic Party of Japan (2009–12) were unsuccessful and need to be revised.

The desire to deal with leftover agenda items underlies the ideas of establishing an organ comparable to the United States’ National Security Council and of revising the government’s interpretation of the Constitution to make it possible for Japan to participate in collective self-defense activities. And the idea of correcting the course set by the DPJ is exemplified by the prime minister’s call for a review of the National Defense Program Guidelines approved by the cabinet in December 2010 and for the abrogation of the current medium-term defense program for fiscal years 2011–16.

Can Japan Sustain a Long-Term Increase in Defense Spending?

It is not entirely fair to label the security and defense policies adopted during the three years of DPJ rule a complete failure or to judge the current National Defense Program Guidelines and medium-term defense program to be out of line with current conditions. It is true that under Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio (September 2009–June 2010) the trust between Japan and the United States was seriously impaired by the confusion the prime minister caused over the plans for relocation of the Futenma Air Station facility in Okinawa and by his administration’s pursuit of an “East Asian Community” concept that seemed to exclude the United States. But after Hatoyama stepped down the bilateral relationship regained a solid footing and achieved steady progress. Notable developments that illustrated this included the Operation Tomodachi rescue and relief program undertaken by the US military following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the US confirmation that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the Japan-US Security Treaty, the agreement reached at the April 2011 bilateral summit to build up “dynamic defense cooperation,” and the June 2011 adoption by the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee of a set of 24 shared strategic objectives.

It is true, as the new Abe administration notes, that Japan’s security environment has become harsher over the past several years because of developments like North Korea’s satellite launch (effectively a missile test) and the activities of official Chinese vessels in the waters around the Senkakus. But the current NDPG addresses such concerns to a certain degree. For example, it includes the references to ballistic missile defense and to the response to an attack on Japanese islands that were originally adopted in the 2004 version, compiled when the LDP was in power (under Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō). One cannot help suspecting that the call for revision of this document at this point is motivated less by policy judgment than by a desire to put the previous administration in a bad light.

That is not to say that there are no problems with the status quo. Ever since the adoption of the current NDPG and the medium-term defense program, it has been recognized that the defense budget will need to be increased in order to achieve the objectives set forth in these documents. Japan’s defense appropriations basically plateaued in the late 1990s, reaching a peak in 2002, since when they have been declining, and this budget is clearly insufficient to accomplish the missions enumerated in the NDPG. The Abe administration has decided to seek an increase of ¥40 billion in defense spending under its draft budget for the coming fiscal year. This is a positive development. But the question is whether it will be possible to hike defense appropriations over the long term in the face of the government’s huge fiscal deficit and the inexorable rise of social security expenditures.

The Need for Overall Policy Consistency

Another problem area is in the way the NDPG and other elements of defense policy are formulated. When these National Defense Program Guidelines were initially adopted in 1976, they were designed to express the fundamental character of Japan’s defense capabilities and set the framework for upgrading them. Subsequently the government started adopting medium-term defense programs and building up Japan’s defensive strength in the face of Cold War tensions, but the guidelines were not revised for many years.

This changed with the end of the Cold War. The NDPG have been revised three times since 1995, and now they are up for revision again. This reflects the fact that the government has come to identify these guidelines as the medium for expressing its defense policy. But it makes the relationship between the NDPG and the medium-term defense program unclear. Also, the process of revising the NDPG still follows the precedent of having a panel of experts from outside the government prepare a report, which serves as the basis for drawing up a new set of guidelines. This is an inefficient approach to formulating defense policy in the face of today’s rapidly changing security environment. The revision of defense policy should be an ongoing process.

So reviewing the current NDPG and medium-term defense program is a good thing, as long as it is conducted properly. But a key point is securing the consistency among these guidelines and the other elements of Japan’s defense policy. Japan and the United States have already put the drafting of a new set of defense cooperation guidelines on the agenda. And a new expert panel has already started to consider the establishment of an organ like the US National Security Council and the idea of allowing Japan to exercise collective self-defense.

All of these issues regarding Japan’s defense posture require attention, and in general terms it is appropriate for them to be addressed. But in today’s environment, characterized by the heightening of tensions with North Korea, China, and Russia, along with unresolved friction with South Korea over territorial and historical matters, there is a danger that taking up all of these issues at the same time will lead to confusion; they will need to be handled with careful consideration and due speed.

Urgently Needed: A High-Level Agreement on Asia-Pacific Security

A more fundamental issue is the Abe administration’s overall foreign policy strategy. Ever since his first term, Prime Minister Abe has stressed “value-oriented diplomacy,” meaning a focus on the Japan-US alliance complemented by the strengthening of ties with counterparts like South Korea, Southeast Asian countries, Australia, and India. Since then, North Korea has pushed ahead with its provocative programs to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while China has been stepping up its heavy-handed approach to external affairs. These developments seem to have made Abe’s policy orientation easier to accept. But even today, an increased role for Japan with respect to security on the Korean Peninsula is a delicate matter, and with respect to the maritime friction between Japan and China, the United States and other countries are anxious to avoid the scenario of an inadvertent outbreak of hostilities.

Under these circumstances, other countries are probably having a hard time gauging what Abe’s talk of restoring a “strong Japan” means in terms of international strategy. What is urgently required at this point is a high-level agreement with the United States and other countries concerning the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. This should be confirmed before Japan addresses the details of its security and defense agenda.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 12, 2013.)

security China Asia-Pacific LDP North Korea National Security Council National Defense Program Guidelines South Korea Senkaku Shinzo Abe Hiroshi Nakanishi defense guidelines NSC Security Consultative Committee SCC Jun’ichiro Koizumi