The Schizophrenic Superpower

The Schizophrenic Superpower

Mini Teaser: Japan would prefer to be an ecnomic giant and a political pygmy. Neither circumstances nor its neighbors will allow it that luxury.

by Author(s): Alan Dupont

Furthermore, the country's aging population and the existence of a resilient, mature democracy works against a revival of militarism. Given its geostrategic vulnerabilities, energy dependence and declining birth rate, Japan is hardly in a position to embark on a policy of military adventurism or expansionism in East Asia, not least because it would be vehemently opposed by China, Japan's principal competitor for regional influence, as well as its major ally, the United States.

Those who fear a return of militarism in Japan also fail to appreciate the domestic constraints on defense spending, which is legally capped at 1 percent of GDP, far lower than in most comparable countries. China, for example, spends 4.1 percent of GDP on defense, the United States 3.3 percent, South Korea 2.8 percent, France 2.5 percent, and Australia 1.9 percent. In East Asia, only Laos spends less as a percentage of GDP. Even a comparison by purchasing power parity shows Japan's per capita defense expenditure as around one quarter that of the United States and half that of France.

Although this translates into an annual defense budget of $41 billion a year, the third largest in the world, more than 50 percent goes to salaries and personnel costs. So the money available for military hardware and support systems is less than might be expected for a budget this size. Moreover, Japan's defense budget is being stretched by research and development related to the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Program (BMD), which will cost around $1 billion in financial year 2004/05 and an estimated $10 billion this decade, all of which will have to be absorbed within the existing budget. Thus, the scope for order-of-magnitude increases in combat power, particularly force-projection capabilities such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, is limited by fiscal as well as political realities.

However, eschewing the role of a regional hegemon does not mean that Japan should remain forever a strategically neutered superpower while others are free to configure the world according to their national interests and ideological proclivities. Japan's foreign policy and defense elites envisage playing a more constructive role in regional and global affairs, free of constitutional shackles, by building and shaping institutions and norms according to Japanese values and interests. This is what Koizumi means when he talks about Japan becoming a "normal" state. It also implies a greater willingness to use force and dispatch the SDF on operations beyond Japan's borders in coalitions of the willing, as well as UN-sanctioned peacekeeping operations.

These are developments that should be welcomed, rather than being a cause for alarm. What must be remembered is that unlike Europe, where war between states has become virtually unthinkable, Japan inhabits a region where interstate conflict is still a realistic prospect. It would be foolish in the extreme for Japan to emulate Europe's security approach, which emphasizes confidence-building measures to resolve intramural disputes while reserving force for out-of-area operations. The strategic balance in northeast Asia is far less stable and predictable than in Europe, and Japan's alliance obligations mandate the maintenance of a military capable of modern warfighting both at home and abroad. SDF personnel should not be seen as blue-helmeted NGOs.

Alliance Implications

But how durable is Japan's alliance with the United States, the foundation stone of its security for the past half century? Could the alliance founder, or be fatally weakened, by rising Japanese nationalism or by a reassessment in Washington that Japan matters less? There are some disturbing portents. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans feel close to Japan as a country, and China's emergence as a major trading nation has already eroded Tokyo's influence in the halls of U.S. commerce and industry. The sense of shared strategic interests that once strongly united Japanese and Americans has dissipated. Although opinion surveys show that the Japanese public continues to express support in principle for the alliance, there is strong local opposition to the U.S. presence in areas like Okinawa and Atsugi, fueled by resentment over the sexual misconduct of U.S. servicemen and the occupation of valuable public land by the U.S. military.

Even so, it is difficult to envisage the circumstances that would lead to a breakdown or hollowing-out of the alliance. After a period of neglect during the Clinton Administration, President Bush moved decisively in his first term of office to rejuvenate ties with Tokyo, reflecting the administration's assessment that a strong, regionally engaged Japan is crucial to three important U.S. strategic interests in East Asia: balancing China's rising power, providing greater logistic and intelligence support for the U.S. military, and facilitating U.S. deployments to potential trouble spots. The Pentagon knows that for political and strategic reasons it would be virtually impossible to replicate the facilities it enjoys in Japan. Guam is too far away, and the Vietnamese are unlikely to permit the United States to reoccupy its former base at Cam Ranh Bay. Australia and Singapore are useful stopovers for deployments in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, but not the Taiwan Straits, where any conflict with China is most likely to be played out. Furthermore, the global realignment of U.S. military forces announced in August 2004 can only enhance Japan's strategic value to the United States as its principal Asian ally and a key base for troop deployments to the Middle East and Central Asia.

A more likely scenario is that Japan will remain within the alliance but that over time it will seek greater autonomy and equality. By any calculation, the alliance is a net strategic benefit for Japan. The U.S. nuclear umbrella still provides an unmatchable level of extended deterrence against an attack from a nuclear-armed state. This is a crucial consideration for Tokyo, since China and Russia are able to strike Japan with nuclear-armed missiles and North Korea may well possess a handful of rudimentary nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Moreover, the United States will be an essential counterweight to China's growing power as demographic, military and economic forces shift decisively in favor of Beijing. Fifty years ago, there was one Japanese for every six Chinese; by 2050 the ratio will be an unprecedented one to 16, based on current demographic trends. While the Japanese economy still dwarfs China's and its military packs a powerful punch, Japan's relative position isdeteriorating. If the alliance disintegrated, Japan would have to double and perhaps triple defense spending to compensate for the loss of the capabilities that the United States provides. Even then it could never replicate the unique military and intelligence assets that the United States brings to the table.

The real question for Tokyo is how to create more political and decision-making space for itself in a security partnership that can never truly be one of equals because of the disparities in size and strategic weight. Might the U.S. special relationship with the UK serve as a model, as former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and others have suggested? Despite superficial similarities--both the UK and Japan are maritime trading states anchored off the Eurasian landmass--Japan's vastly different strategic circumstances and the absence of the unique historical, linguistic and cultural ties that underpin the Anglo-American relationship suggest otherwise.

More likely is an evolutionary process in which Japan gains a greater say on issues that are central to its security concerns in Asia and looks for opportunities to encourage more collaborative behavior in its American ally. There are increasing signs of independent thinking in Japan's strategic engagement with the United States, which Washington must accept and encourage in the interests of a more mature and enduring partnership. Much of this is being driven by Japan's involvement in BMD and the need to reach agreement with the United States on a complex range of associated political and operational issues.

Currently, Japan is not able to detect and intercept incoming ballistic missiles without U.S. assistance, a conspicuous deficiency given the established arsenals of China, Russia and North Korea. In the absence of a countervailing missile capability, which is forbidden under the current interpretation of the constitution, Tokyo has opted to participate in BMD research and development. The central aim of this ambitious and still controversial enterprise is to construct a missile shield able to protect Japan against a limited strike from North Korea (although it is unlikely to be an effective prophylactic against China's or Russia's more numerous and capable missile forces).

Joint tests are expected to commence in late 2005, and the proposed system, comprising land- and sea-based interceptors, will be activated in 2007. Aside from lingering doubts about whether the shield will actually work as hypothesized, participation in BMD with the United States poses some real policy conundrums for Tokyo. Neighboring states, particularly China, are concerned that the expertise acquired in sensitive areas of missile technology would be readily transferable should Japan decide to develop its own missiles and arm them with nuclear warheads. Japanese scientists are involved in research on four components of the SM-3 missile--the propulsion system, infrared sensors, lightweight nose-cone technology and the kinetic kill warhead. China worries that Japan might export missile technology to Taiwan, and extending the shield to cover the approaches to the island could negate China's current missile advantage over Taiwan.

Essay Types: Essay