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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

After Iraq: what does the future hold for Japan?

Jean-Marie Bouissou

Texte intégral

1August 2003

2Although the Japanese government has struggled to improve its economic system over the last ten years, there is one area it has managed to overhaul: defence. In response to the many international crises that have occured since the end of the Cold War, from the first and second Gulf Wars to the recurring conflicts in the Korean Peninsula, Japan has progressively modified its traditional stance preventing “self-defence forces” (the official name given to the Japanese armed forces) from acting outside the country. In 1992, after the first Gulf War, the PKO (Peacekeeping Operations) Law allowed these forces to take part in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions and other operations in peaceful environments. In 1996, references to the UN were deleted from the new implementation directives of the Japan-United States Security Treaty, and Japanese armed forces were authorised to support the United States if a crisis occurred in “areas surrounding Japan” that would influence the country’s security. The attacks of September 11th 2001 enabled the government to pass a law allowing it to deploy troops anywhere in the world to fight terrorism. In July, the decision to send a thousand men to take part in the occupation of Iraq put the finishing touches to this reform. Tokyo no longer needed UN security resolutions or peacekeeping pretexts to send soldiers to conflict zones in order to support operations launched unilaterally by the United States on grounds that appear increasingly unconvincing.

3Today, the Japanese can only intervene in non-combat operations. In theory, this means they are not even able to help transport fuel unless their allies promise it will not be used for combat missions. Tomorrow, however, when parliamentary representatives ratify the country’s new stance, the military resources currently being amassed by Tokyo will be put for much wider use. As long as their role only consists in defending the national territory, “self-defence forces” have no power projection. They have powerful weapons (including 1,000 heavy tanks and over 300 combat aircrafts), but no hands or eyes to operate them. They depend on their US allies for most of their intelligence. Tomorrow, they will be free of these paralysing limits.

4Between 2010 and 2015, the arms programmes currently underway will make Japan one of the world’s largest naval powers. It will be close to having four classic task forces operating from four ships (code name, DDH), the first two of which will be deployed in 2008 and 2009. Despite being presented as “helicopter carrier-destroyers”, these vessels were built using plans for British carriers such as the “Invincible” that won the Falklands War. Each ship can carry 22 vertical take-off Sea Harriers. The Japanese government already has plans to acquire some of these aircraft. The other vessels necessary for its operation and protection, including destroyers, frigates, replenishment oilers and anti-submarine aircraft, will accompany each ship. Kongô-class destroyers will provide anti-aircraft defence. These warships, weighing 7,500 tonnes, are the most powerful in the world, and are equipped with an Aegis system capable of focusing on up to 200 targets at the same time. Japan already has four, and plans to obtain four more. Each task force will include a large landing ship (Ôsumi-class, weighing 8,900 tonnes), from which helicopters, heavy tanks and combat hydrofoils (four of which are planned to be built) can be deployed. Officially intended for “humanitarian” missions or evacuating refugees from hostile situations, Ôsumi-class ships have the required capacity to become bases for landing forces of 1,000 men and heavy material, protected by heavy artillery and Kongô missiles. The strong interoperability of the Japanese and US navies (the Kongô is an American model) will allow for joint operations in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean to be carried out. No other country in the region will rival Japan, despite China’s efforts to develop tools (surveillance activities, a submarine fleet and missiles) to this effect.

5The Japanese air force, which undertook its first in-flight refuelling exercises this spring, will be able to operate throughout Asia and beyond. A fleet of large C-130 aircraft, of which the country already owns 15, will contribute to the country’s force projection. The Japanese army, whose role will no longer be limited to waiting – weapons at the ready – for the country to be invaded, will benefit from increased mobility. It will include commando forces, with a core made up of units that were set up in 1998. These units were supposedly created to support the police’s domestic antiterrorist operations, but their sophisticated equipment is better adapted to projection in extreme combat conditions, including chemical warfare. Military satellites, the first of which was launched in April 2003, will provide the armed forces with the intelligence that they lack today.

6Although the general public has remained pacifist (a small majority disapprove sending troops to Iraq), the changes affecting the military are no longer met with opposition. The arguments between left-wing deputies and government representatives during debates on whether to send armed forces to Iraq resembled last-ditch struggles. Since the Socialist Party disappeared, pacifism has been dying out in Japan, as has the old generation of conservative politicians who despised war, as a result of first hand experience. In the Liberal Democratic Party, at the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, military issues have been taken over by young specialists. Some of them resemble the neoconservative ideologists surrounding George Bush. While there are not many of them, they are well organised and motivated. They are part of a generation that has forgotten the trauma of defeat and was not influenced by the pacifist movement that followed. Their vision of international affairs is affected by the humiliating economic crisis, Japan’s frustrating isolation during the first Gulf War, and the threat of North Korea on their doorstep. For them, the idealist period following Japan’s defeat has ended. They have once again turned to the school of thought that had influenced Japanese foreign policy from the late 19th century up until the Hiroshima bombing. This school of thought, where pragmatism acts as a single national power, led to the assassination of foreign leaders (the Queen of Korea in 1895), the violation of international rules (the surprise attacks on Port Arthur in 1904 and Pearl Harbour), the unilateral denunciation of treaties (the Washington Treaty limiting naval armament) and disregard for international organisations (Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1931). It bears a certain resemblance to the regime in place in Washington today. It is not by chance that 100 members of parliament, from both the LDP and opposition parties (including the current Minister of Defence), have just published a declaration demanding that “pre-emptive strikes” (a key element of Rumsfeld’s defence strategy) be recognised as a legitimate form of self-defence – the only form of defence authorised by Japan’s constitution.

7Japan’s only weak spot will be its anti-missile defence system. Its cities are painfully vulnerable to the weapons of mass destruction owned by its closest neighbours – North Korea, China and Russia. To protect itself, the country could become more involved in the United States’ missile defence system for which it currently makes a limited and cautious contribution. However, this futuristic shield is far from being operational. It will cost a lot of money and will never be completely effective, especially for a vulnerable country like Japan, which is located so close to enemy launch bases. Implementing the system in Japan would attract the strong opposition of China. In addition, Tokyo would remain dependent on a partner that has an interest in keeping a finger on the trigger to ensure Japan’s obedience. As the project stands, information on enemy missile launches would be sent to the system’s central nervous system in the United States, where information would be processed and orders would be issued to deal with the threat. Not only does this procedure involve a dangerous delay, but it also leaves Japan at the mercy of its dominant partner.

8The other option is nuclear deterrence. Japan can obtain nuclear weapons in a much shorter timeframe and at a much lower cost for its crisis-affected finances. The nation’s allergy to nuclear weapons is an obstacle to this strategy, however, the LDP did away with this taboo long ago, and the unpredictable behaviour of North Korea has made the general public more malleable. In addition, countries can become nuclear powers without declaring their intention to do so, as seen in Israel and, formerly, South Africa. The operation could then be purposely overlooked by the general public, which has for decades turned a blind eye to the 7th fleet warships occasionally docking in Japanese ports despite carrying atomic weapons that violate Tokyo’s non-nuclear stance. A hypothetical national consensus on the atomic bomb is no longer likely today. It will be even less likely tomorrow if what we no longer dare to call “world order” continues to become a brutal power struggle.

9At the beginning of the 20th century, few analysts predicted that the American superpower would expand as it did following the attacks of September 11 and Bush’s neoconservative leadership. Even fewer looked into how three factors would affect Japan’s presence on the international stage over the next decade. These factors signalled the arrival to power of a generation unaffected by the trauma of defeat and frustrated by the crisis, the disappearance of pacifist inhibitions and the implementation of a military strategy involving a navy that will perhaps only be rivalled by the United States in 15 years time, and the adjustments of power structures in Asia as a result of China’s economic boom (or bust, if it fails). These factors are more numerous than those that appeared to affect the United States before September 11th. This is just another reason to keep an open mind on things to come, without adopting an alarmist attitude.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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