Japan's have-it-both-ways defense policy too clever by half

Gerald Segal, for Asia Times, 16th June 1997 

Imagine the next crisis in the Taiwan Strait. China has blockaded Taiwanese ports by threatening to launch missiles at any ship that enters Taiwanese waters. The United States leads an international flotilla of commercial ships to break the blockade. Joined by NATO allies, the naval force is ready to retaliate against anyone who fires at the flotilla and violates the right to freedom of navigation. 

Where will Japan be in this scenario? What does the June 7 interim report on the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation tell us about Japan's changing defense policy? 

The too-clever-by-half feature of the interim guidelines is that no one knows the answer. 

Japan could put its ships into harm's way by joining the civil flotilla. Its minesweepers could join the naval force and its aircraft could sweep the Chinese coast for crucial intelligence to support the deterrence of the mainland. 

Or Japan could do the opposite. It could cite the clause in the interim guidelines that notes the need for Japan to act "within the limitations of its constitution and in accordance with such basic positions as the maintenance of its exclusively defense-oriented policy and three non-nuclear principles". 

This would be a Japan that ducks both the tough choices and the flying missiles - a Japan that still foolishly believes the US will look after the balance of power as the rest of Asia continues to make money. 

The fact that we do not know how Japan would react has a lot to do with the country's domestic politics. The Japanese political system changes slowly and works through laborious consensus. 

Japan has already moved beyond its passivity in defense matters during the Cold War - everyone now knows that Japan's Self-Defense Forces has quality hardware and some tough, professional soldiers. Yet it is not clear that Japan really wants to run risks unless it absolutely has to. 

Public opinion polls show a sharp increase in the number of people identifying China as a threat - now up to 54 percent, a rise of more than 30 percentage points in less than 14 months. The steady stream of problems with China, including disputes over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, threats to Taiwan and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea against Vietnam and the Philippines, all reinforce China's negative image. 

But Japan, like many other countries, recognizes the risks that come from a premature determination that China is a threat. Treat China like it is threatening, so the doves argue, and sure enough it will become a threat. Because Japan needs little encouragement to be dovish about China, the argument for staying out of harm's way has many supporters. 

The result is the current strategy of obfuscation, as embodied in the new interim guidelines. There is no mention of China in the document and even government briefers are reluctant to mention the "C-word". 

They are much happier to talk of the "K-word" - North Korea - for who would argue against the notion that this unstable rogue requires robust deterrence? 

The Japanese know that it was precisely because they reacted in such a pusillanimous fashion to the 1994 crisis with North Korea that the US insisted that its military arrangements with Japan be modernized. It was Japan's tendency to hide under the covers in 1994 that made it clear to Washington that it could not pursue a tough line in demanding that North Korea come clean about its nuclear program. 

The Japanese government now recognizes that a strategy of obfuscation is better than a strategy of ducking for cover. Japan can afford such a strategy - barely - because it is not too far from the current US strategy toward Taiwan. 

The US will neither confirm nor deny that it will defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese attack. 

The US says it will defend the right to have the Taiwan issue resolved peacefully, and offers that as the justification for its deployment of two carrier battle groups in March 1996. 

But US officials draw a distinction between such action and the defense of Taiwan per se. Washington clearly appreciates that if it gives Taiwan a blanket guarantee of protection, then Taiwanese politicians will feel more free to declare independence and draw an attack from China. 

Such strategies of ambiguity as pursued by Japan and the US help explain why so many other states in the Asia-Pacific feel free to have some of the most unstrategic and incoherent defense policies in the modern world. 

Consider the case of Singapore - a vulnerable city-state that packs more military punch than neighboring Malaysia but has very little place to keep and train its forces - so much so, that it rents facilities in Australia and even Taiwan. There is enough chutzpah in Singapore's formal affection for China but close military ties with Taiwan to put even the arch-pragmatists in Israel to shame. 

One might also consider the wonderfully obfuscated strategy of Indonesia. Jakarta trumpets the utility of the ASEAN Regional Forum and various ad hoc mechanisms for discussing Chinese actions in the South China Sea, but in the meantime buys the East German navy, signs a defense pact with Australia and makes sure to exercise its naval forces in the disputed waters around the Natuna gas field. 

There is no shortage of examples of quirky defense policies in the Asia-Pacific, and the point is that Japan is in fact not very different from others in its region. To be fair to the Japanese, they have tried to do things differently. When Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Southeast Asia recently in search of closer military consultations, he was rebuffed everywhere except in Vietnam. 

Japanese officials were clearly frustrated because they were hearing from many people in the region, and further afield in Australia, that ASEAN states would now be more willing to contemplate modernized military relations with Japan. The fact that Japan could not get beyond diplomatic niceties on military matters has helped drive Japan further down the road of cooperation with the US. It has also led Japan to explore closer defense ties with Russia. 

The beautiful thing about a defense strategy of obfuscation, once you get the hang of it, is that you can do almost anything without doing almost anything. Japan cannot be seen to make much progress in security ties with Russia because of the unsettled Northern Territories dispute, but it can just ignore the territorial dispute if it wants to invite the Russian defense minister (as it did in May), so as to get on with talks about "issues of mutual concern" (China, for example). 

It may be that strategies of obfuscation will be the latest vogue in military affairs. After all, we also live in a time when the much-trumpeted revolution in military affairs is about how information technology and communications will revolutionize warfare. 

Modern war, we are told, will be fought through cyberspace and with space-based systems. China will deter US smart weapons through such strategies of information deterrence such as those that shut down the California telephone system. In short, many people foresee an age of virtual warfare where civilian and military sectors are blurred beyond distinction. 

But strategies of obfuscation have serious risks. While deterrence of China, for example, is sometimes enhanced by a lack of clarity, it also often requires an exaggerated sense of certainty. 

If China had known beyond doubt that the US would move two carrier battle groups into the Taiwan war zone in 1996, Beijing might not have humiliated itself in its futile attempt to influence the outcome of the Taiwanese election. 

A good case could be made that future Taiwan crises would be better served if the US and other allies made clear that any threat or use of force would be met by overwhelming deterrence. 

South Korea certainly relies on such threats to keep North Korean hotheads at bay. Japan must assume such messages would keep North Koreans from launching missiles against Japan. 

Further afield, obfuscation let Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait and Serbia press its luck in the Balkans for far too long. The US clearly understands the virtues of clarity - how else is one to read the fact that the US spends nearly twice as much on its armed forces than all of Asia, and that NATO countries account for nearly 60 percent of global defense spending. 

But it is precisely the scale of those numbers that in due course will require greater clarity from Japan. Real allies of the US, as in NATO, spend serious amounts on defense and work closely in combined operations designed to fight high intensity warfare. 

Japan needs to spend more and work more closely with the US. It needs to be prepared to join with the US if and when it becomes necessary to move further and with greater effect into harm's way. If it doesn't do all of this, it may be left on its own.