How to Safeguard Japan In the Years Ahead: National Security and the Japan-US Alliance

The Deepening of the Japan-US Alliance


The Japan-US alliance faces a number of knotty problems, exacerbated by initial bungling after Japan’s 2009 change of ruling parties. But the Japanese have been reawakened to the challenge posed by China’s fast-growing military might, and the United States has recommitted itself to involvement in East Asian security affairs.

In September 2009 Hatoyama Yukio, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, took office as prime minister following his party’s victory in the previous month’s general election. During his short-lived administration (through June 2010), his efforts to deal with the problem of relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa ended in failure, severely damaging US trust in Japan. And no real progress has been achieved in settling this knotty issue under Hatoyama’s successors.

Meanwhile, China has continued to increase its military spending, which has grown by a multiple of 18 over the past 20 years. It has been upgrading its military capabilities to a remarkable degree on multiple fronts, including the strengthening of its submarine fleet, aircraft carrier construction, the stepping up of its space program, and the development of stealth fighter jets. The dispute that occurred in September 2010 concerning the Senkaku Islands (a group of islands west of Okinawa that are under Japanese control but are also claimed by China) reawakened the Japanese people to the Chinese threat. Also, North Korea carried out its second nuclear test in 2009 and is continuing to develop a nuclear arsenal. What is Japan’s defense policy stance in the face of these developments? In particular, what is the current state of the Japan-US alliance, which is the linchpin of our country’s security policy?

Changes over the Years in the National Defense Program Guidelines

In order to shed light on the current state of Japan’s defense policy and the alliance with the United States, let us consider how the National Defense Program Guidelines have changed over the years.

The National Defense Program Guidelines were first adopted in October 1976, under Prime Minister Miki Takeo. The guidelines were not revised until just over 20 years later, in November 1995, during the administration of Murayama Tomiichi. The revised guidelines confirmed the importance of the Japan-US Security Treaty for the sake of regional security in the post–Cold War period, calling for continuation of the Basic Defense Force Concept, but at the same time seeking to streamline and technologically modernize Japan’s defense forces. The basis for the 1995 revision was the August 1994 report of the Advisory Group on Defense Issues, a body created in February of that year, during the administration of Hosokawa Morihiro. This group was headed by Higuchi Hirotarō, chairman of the board of Asahi Breweries, and its membership consisted of academic experts (such as Aoyama Gakuin Professor Watanabe Akio) and civil service veterans and a former chief of staff. A similar pattern came to be followed in selecting members for subsequent panels of the same nature.

The guidelines were revised again in December 2004 under Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō. The revisions this time were based on recommendations from a council chaired by Araki Hiroshi, former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and including Kobe University Professor Iokibe Makoto, University of Tokyo Professor Tanaka Akihiko, and civil servants veterans and a former chief of staff. The formulation of the guidelines took into consideration the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the ongoing war on terror.

In 2009, during the administration of Asō Tarō, an expert panel was set up to consider a further revision of the guidelines. This panel was headed by TEPCO Chairman Katsumata Tsunehisa, and I served as one of the members. It submitted its report that August, but shortly thereafter Prime Minister Asō fell from power, and the guidelines were not revised at that point. The panel’s recommendations included calls for the establishment of a National Security Council, revision of the three principles restricting arms exports, a shift to a southwesterly orientation for Japan’s defense posture, and reconsideration of collective self-defense.

In September 2009, as already noted, the Democratic Party of Japan came into power, and the new Hatoyama administration set up another expert panel to look at the defense guidelines. This panel was chaired by Keihan Electric Railway Co. Chairman Satō Shigetaka, and its members included Professor Shiraishi Takashi of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. It submitted its recommendations in August 2010, and these served as the basis for a revision of the guidelines in December of that year.

One point we can note about the above record is that the interval between revisions has shortened over the years. The first revision was not made until 20 years after the original guidelines were adopted, but the next one came 9 years later, and the most recent one was made after 6 years (and would have been made after 5 years if the recommendations submitted to the Asō administration had been adopted).

A second point is that the developments that induced the revisions are clear. The 1995 revision was driven by the renewed awareness of the importance of the Japan-US alliance in the post–Cold War period, at a time when North Korea was suspected of developing a nuclear capability. It tied in with the US-Japan Joint Declaration on Security adopted by Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō and President Bill Clinton in April 1996. In 2004, the revision was undertaken in response to the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror in the Middle East. The establishment of a Central Readiness Force was related to these developments. And, needless to say, the 2010 revision was connected to the rise of China’s military capabilities.

Third, it bears noting that a nonpartisan consensus has been emerging with respect to these guidelines. In the following section I will offer an overview of the process by which this has happened.

The Policy Shift Under the Abe Administration

Up through the Koizumi administration, the expansion of the Japan-US alliance was considered mainly in geographical terms. One aspect of this, it could be said, was Japan’s dispatching of Self-Defense Force personnel to serve in a supporting role for the antiterrorism missions underway in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, however, the focus has clearly shifted toward the deepening of the alliance. This change started under Prime Minister Abe.

One manifestation of this shift was the establishment of the Council on the Strengthening of the Functions of the Prime Minister’s Office Regarding National Security. This body was created with a view to setting up a National Security Council within the Japanese government. The council issued its report in February 2007, based on which the government drafted a bill and submitted it to the National Diet, but the Abe administration ran out of steam and failed to win enactment. The administration of Fukuda Yasuo, Abe’s successor, let the matter drop.

The proposal was based on a sense that Japan needed an organ close to the prime minister to deliberate and formulate defense policy on a comprehensive basis, and that the existing Security Council had become an empty shell; this was the basis for the call to establish an NSC made up of a small number of cabinet ministers and supported by a strong secretariat.

Another key initiative of the Abe administration was the establishment of a panel to consider rebuilding the legal foundations for Japan’s national security. This panel was charged by Prime Minister Abe with the task of examining the following four points: (1) whether Japan should take joint action for a situation in which a US naval vessel operating in the seas near Japan comes under attack; (2) whether it would be permissible for Japan to shoot down a missile launched from some country that is targeting a country other than Japan (for example, the United States); (3) modifying the standards for the use of weapons by Japanese forces while participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations to conform to international standards; and (4) providing logistic support for activities by other countries, while participating in UN peacekeeping operations (i.e., whether to change the status quo, under which such actions are officially interpreted as “collective self-defense” by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and, as such, are not permitted by the Constitution).

The panel submitted its report in June 2008. With respect to points (1) and (2), it declared that such actions, while involving the exercise of collective self-defense, are necessary; the view that collective self-defense is unconstitutional is a matter of interpretation, the panel declared, and it called for prompt revision of this view. With respect to points (3) and (4), it declared that UN peacekeeping operations are unrelated to Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan (which bans the use of military force) and that it is incorrect to look at these acts in connection with the right of collective self-defense; the panel recommended that such moves should definitely be implemented.

When the report was submitted, however, Abe had already resigned due to illness. The administration of his successor, Prime Minister Fukuda, was not interested in acting on the panel’s recommendations, which thus were not implemented.

Another development that started during the Abe administration was the launch of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee. We should note that this move was aimed at blocking China from continuing to play the “history card” in relations with Japan, and that the same administration’s concept of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” was a position with strategic significance vis-à-vis China and Russia.(*1)

As I have already noted in part, some of the key policies of the Abe administration were not carried on by the Fukuda administration. The latter stressed engagement with China, and its efforts in this regard culminated with the May 2008 visit to Japan by China’s President Hu Jintao and the agreements reached by President Hu and Prime Minister Fukuda at their bilateral summit.

Fukuda was succeed by Asō as prime minister in September 2008, but even though Asō (as Abe’s foreign minister) had been the main exponent of the “arc of freedom and prosperity,” his administration did not come out with any major policy initiatives in this direction. The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was on the verge of losing its hold on power, which meant that Asō and his cabinet were probably not in a position to devote serious attention to that concept.

The report on revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines submitted to Prime Minister Asō in 2009 included calls for establishment of a National Security Council, for a shift to a southwesterly defense posture (in view of China’s military rise), for revision of the three principles restricting arms exports, and for revision of the interpretation of the Constitution as banning the exercise of collective self-defense. It bears noting that the recommendations submitted to the government in 2010, after the DPJ took over from the LDP, contained just about the same content.

As a result, the 2010 revision of the guidelines included the southwesterly shift, a commitment to dynamic deterrence stressing readiness and mobility, and a call for establishment of a Japanese NSC (though this was not presented in a clear form).(*2) The revision of the three principles on arms exports was not included, however, since the DPJ was seeking to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (which strongly opposed such a move). The idea of relaxing the restraints imposed by the three principles has not been totally rejected, however. It is understood that participation in international development is required in connection with procurement of Japan’s next-generation fighter aircraft; this involves both the export and the import of weapons technology. In this regard, the Noda administration, in December, made the official decision that the F-35 will be the next-generation fighter and decided to revise the three principles. In any case, it is of great interest that the revision of the guidelines as adopted under the DPJ was almost the same in its orientation as that drawn up under the LDP.

The Asia Strategy of the United States

To understand the background to developments, we need to note what had been occurring in the East China Sea and South China Sea. In 2010 there were multiple flaps between China and Southeast Asian countries over their claimed exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Such disputes are not unusual on the global scene. But Chinese fishing ships accompanied by large naval escort vessels tried to force their way into the EEZs claimed by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations despite the existence of an agreement between China and ASEAN to avoid such incidents.

China has come out with its own “nine-dotted line,” declaring that it will not allow other countries to intrude into the seas within this line. The area in question includes the Spratly Islands and the EEZ claimed by China. Even if one accepts China’s claim to the Spratlys, its territorial waters extend only 12 nautical miles from these islands, and so its claim to waters beyond the 12-mile limit clearly has no legal basis and violates the freedom of the high seas.

The similarity between the revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines as adopted by the DPJ-led administration in 2010 and the recommendations submitted to the LDP-led government in 2009 may be attributed largely to the fact that the revision was implemented just after the flap between Japan and China over the Senkakus in the East China Sea, which occurred against the backdrop of the above developments in the South China Sea.

Here I would like to touch on the strategy of the United States in this connection. To put it simply, we have seen a US “return to Asia.”

In November 2009, during a visit to Japan, President Barack Obama delivered a speech in which he clearly stated the American intention of being involved in this region as an Asia-Pacific nation. And at the July 2010 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that freedom of navigation was a US national interest, indicating that the issue of the South China Sea was one that the United States could not ignore. In addition, following the incident in the Senkakus in September that year, Washington stated that these islands were covered by the Japan-US Security Treaty.

It was in October 2010 that the United States began to play the leading role in the negotiations for enlargement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact originally concluded by Singapore and a few other countries.

What is interesting about the TPP process is the fact that Vietnam is also participating in the negotiations. As a socialist country, Vietnam will need to undertake many reforms, including liberalization of government procurement. Its decision to take part in the talks regardless of these hurdles can only be taken as a security-related decision. In order to hold its own in the face of China’s overwhelming might, Vietnam has allowed port calls by Russian naval vessels and has welcomed investment by Indian companies in its maritime resources. It is also giving favorable consideration to importing nuclear power plants and the Shinkansen bullet train system from Japan. All of these positions are aimed at counterbalancing China’s weight.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, the United States responded with a massive rescue and aid program conducted by its armed forces, called Operation Tomodachi (“friends”). Deterrent power is ultimately a matter of psychology. And it reportedly was a shock for the Chinese to see the Americans cooperating so closely and powerfully with the Japanese.

Also in March 2011, Myanmar (Burma) shifted to civilian government; the new administration subsequently embarked on political liberalization, including dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar seems to have felt that it was not necessarily advantageous to be living under overwhelming Chinese influence. The United States welcomed the new government’s moves, and in November Hillary Clinton traveled to Myanmar, the first such visit by a US secretary of state in half a century.

November 2011 also brought Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s declaration of Japan’s desire to participate in the TPP negotiations. Canada and Mexico quickly followed suit, adding momentum to the TPP process. And Russia and the United States took part for the first time in the East Asia Summit that same month. Their participation served to temper China’s clout.

With developments like these, a ring of encirclement around China has been taking shape. But this is unlike the containment of the Soviet Union in the past. It is a linkage aimed at encouraging China to emerge as a responsible, rule-abiding great power.

The Chinese have complained that Japan’s shift to a southwesterly orientation for its defense posture represents a provocation against them. This of course is an empty claim. Japan is merely making a modest increase in its capabilities within the scope of its own sovereignty.

The Chinese have also criticized the US commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, calling it interference by a country from outside the region. But what both the United States and Japan are asserting is no more than the need to maintain the maritime order by following the existing rules. And the Chinese claim that they need to increase their naval power because of their growing dependence on trade is specious logic. In today’s world, disputes are supposed to be settled peacefully and problems resolved through the application of rules. Even the United States is incapable of blocking China’s growth; and for Japan, China’s dynamism is an important source of power to tap for the sake of its own economy.

The same applies to the TPP: Thanks to this undertaking, there are now signs of progress toward conclusion of a free trade pact among Japan, China, and South Korea. And the Chinese do not seem to be merely opposed to the TPP.

In Conclusion

Developments in the Japan-US alliance seem to be moving at a slow pace. Japan’s defense budget has not been increasing significantly in recent years. And the US economy is sluggish. Progress is not being made in the relocation of the Futenma air station in Okinawa. Beneath the surface, however, the alliance is deepening. And it has become the core of a “soft” network of encirclement. As I noted above, this is not a dangerous ring of encirclement directed against China. Meanwhile, the alliance faces various problems, including Japan’s stance on collective self-defense. But if these problems can be dealt with, the bilateral alliance is fully capable of serving as the key to the construction of an Asian order that will benefit Japan, the United States, and China.

(*1) ^ That is not to suggest that the Abe administration’s foreign policy was entirely oriented in this direction.

(*2) ^ On December 13, 2011, a DPJ working group aiming for creation of a Japanese NSC (chaired by House of Representatives member Ōno Motohiro) decided on a policy of seeking reconsideration of the shape of the existing Security Council, including the possibility of abolishing it, on the grounds that it has become an empty shell. The group is expected to reach its conclusions by February 2012.

Self-Defense Forces China TPP Japan-US Alliance Trans-Pacific Partnership North Korea security treaty Shinichi Kitaoka South China Sea East China Sea Futenma collective self-defense National Security Council National Defense Program Guidelines