Japan Defense Policy Change: a Forward Strategy?

Japan is going to reduce its number of tanks by one third, and to expand its submarine fleet and to upgrade its fighter jets, according to a policy document by the government in Tokyo which is to shape the next ten years of the country’s defense policy.

Whenever there are military exercises in Asia, there seems to be an inevitable tag attached to it: “not directed against anyone”. But Japan’s new guidelines are outspoken, writes the BBC:

“China is rapidly modernising its military force and expanding activities in its neighbouring waters,” the new guidelines said.
“Together with the lack of transparency on China’s military and security issues, the trend is a concern for the region and the international community.”

The BBC report also refers to the Senkaku incident earlier this year, which involved a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coast guard vessels.

Japan may only be the first country that explicitly points out its main reason for its participation in what one may call an East Asian arms race.

Anyone interested in more recent history might think of NATO’s forward strategy in this context. The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s most senior governing body, faced fundamental decisions sixty years ago. On the North Atlantic Council’s fifth session in New York in September 1950, then US secretary of state Dean Acheson said that NATO needed to push it’s combat lines as far east as it possibly could.

“That means defense in Germany. If that is true, it seems to me to follow inevitably that the morale and the will to resist of the German people has become a major element in the whole defensive system of the West.

Surely, no one would be mad enough to advise that forces of our countries should undertake to fight in Germany in the midst of a population whose morale has been allowed to go to pieces, where defeatism and collaboration with the enemy were rampant.”

Germany wasn’t part of the council or the conferences at the time – and obviously, there were misgivings among the council’s members.Only two or three out of its then twelve members hadn’t been struggling against Germany’s war only a few years earlier.

There are misgivings in Asia, too, the BBC quotes its correspondent in Tokyo, Roland Buerk, who is quoted as saying that

the new strategic stance will be closely watched in Asia, where Japan’s World War II aggression has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

The inclusion of – yet-to-be-established – German armed forces into NATO in the 1950s was a huge step, technically and psychologically. Compared to that, Japan’s defense review is a comparatively small issue, and if the term forward-strategy is indeed appropriate here, it would – in its immediate effect – refer to a shift from Japan’s bigger islands to its smaller outlying ones (and not only to a shift from Japan’s north to its south).

One of the main triggers of NATO’s big steps in the 1950s was the Korean war.

Zhang Zhaozhong (张召忠), a National Defense University professor, told China National Radio (CNR)  in October that

while there was resentment among the South Korean common people against Japan’s participation in joint naval exercises, a feeling that there could be a common threat against both South Korea and Japan – be it from North Korea, be it from China -, could lead both countries to cooperate under American leadership nevertheless.

If that, in turn, could lead to some kind of Asian-Pacific NATO as Zhang suspects would still be a different story.

But while North Korea may still be an opportune ally for China, it’s a costly one, too.


Update / Related
Jiang Yu: Japan falsely claims to represent international opinion, Washington Post, Dec 17, 2010
New Winter: Sino-North Korean Relations Today, Adam Cathcart, Dec 16

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