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Mar 09: Japan’s security and defence policy: the more things change . . .

Axel Berkofsky

For a country that has officially renounced armed force as a means of settling international disputes, Japan’s defence and security policy agenda is looking full. This month, Japan’s Security Council decided to deploy two destroyers to the Gulf of Aden—and into harm’s way—contributing to an international anti-piracy mission. The ships are equipped with two patrol helicopters and carry roughly 400 people, including members of the Japanese Navy’s special forces unit along with eight coast guard personnel.

Given the constraints of Japan’s 1954 Self-Defence Forces Law, the ships are only mandated to escort Japanese-registered ships and foreign ships carrying Japanese nationals or cargo. Nevertheless, the government already has higher ambitions. The Cabinet approved an anti-piracy bill on 13 March that would provide the navy with a legal framework for protecting foreign vessels and firing on pirate ships if they ignore warning shots. This bill is, however, unlikely to pass into law as the upper house of the Japanese Diet is dominated by the political opposition.

Closer to home, a number of other pressing issues will have to be dealt with in 2009 and 2010. But whether recent developments herald a sea change in Japan’s defence and security policy, as some have suggested, is another matter.

China: arms and oil

The first pressing issues is China. In 2008, Japan’s defence white paper, ‘Defence of Japan’, expressed apprehension about how China’s growing military capability will ‘influence the regional state of affairs and the security of Japan’. However, it has become an annual routine for the Japanese Government to publish its concerns about the rapid modernization of China armed forces and it has little bearing on Japan’s defence policies and spending. Japan will not increase its defence budget or upgrade its military capabilities only because China has announced another double-digit increase in its military budget. According to SIPRI, Japan’s military spending was $46 billion in 2008, compared to China’s $84 billion.

However, there are several more substantive Sino-Japanese issues to be addressed, with territorial disputes in the East China Sea topping the list. Japan and China have a long-standing dispute over the ownership of a chain of unpopulated islets in the East China Sea, referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China. More specifically, the dispute relates to the islets’ offshore natural gas and oil resources. In 2008 the Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, launched negotiations to conclude a bilateral treaty over a joint gas development project with China in the disputed waters. Since then, both sides have shown willing—at least on paper—to address the issue more constructively than in previous years. However, China has yet to agree officially to institutionalizing Sino-Japanese gas and oil exploration in the area.

North Korea: missiles and missing persons

Relations between Japan and North Korea remain tense and are unlikely to improve any time soon. This is due, above all, to the ‘abduction issue’: in the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea abducted what Japan claims could be up to 100 Japanese citizens, some of whom were forced to work as Japanese language and culture instructors for the North Korean secret service. While North Korea considers the issue settled after issuing an official apology in 2002, Japan continues to demand reliable information on the fates of the abductees.

Raising the stakes, hundreds of North Korean missiles are reportedly aimed at Japan and at South Korea. It is not known whether North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead compact enough to fit on a ballistic missile. For its part, Japan is working to upgrade its missile defence capabilities. In particular, it has been cooperating with the USA on missile defence since North Korea launched a long-range Taepodong missile over northern Japan in August 1998. Japan spent $1.8 billion on the system in 2008.

Japan–USA: strains in the alliance?

A victory for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in elections for Japan’s lower house later this year could signal the end of business as usual in the US–Japanese security alliance. The outspoken DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, wants Japan to graduate from merely paying $5 billion annually for the maintenance of the 50 000 US troops stationed in Japan to being a more equal partner in the alliance. Much to the DPJ’s chagrin, in February Japan and the USA concluded the Guam International Agreement obligating Japan to pay 60 per cent of the costs (roughly $6 billion) of relocating 8000 US soldiers from Okinawa to Guam by 2014. According to opinion polls, the DPJ is likely to win the elections despite being in the throes of a fundraising scandal.

. . . the more they stay the same

There are fears, above all in China, that Japan is gradually upgrading its military profile in preparation for developing offensive military capabilities. In reality, domestic legal norms and restraints, above all Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which forbids Japan from maintaining armed forces in the first place, will continue to ensure that it does not do so. The international media sometimes suggest otherwise, but Japan’s constitution will not be revised any time soon—that would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet, a near impossibility in view of Japan’s current political constellations.


Since 2001 Japan has significantly expanded its contributions to cooperative global security, including under the auspices of the US ‘global war on terrorism’. In 2004 Japan deployed, albeit under strong US pressure, a troop contingent to southern Iraq, which provided humanitarian aid until 2006. The Japanese Navy provides logistical support in the Indian Ocean for US and other warships engaged in the war in Afghanistan. Finally, Japan will join the international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden next month.

However, the fundamentals of Japan’s security and defence policies are not about to change and Japanese troop contributions to international military missions will continue to be the exception, not the rule—not least because there is no permanent domestic legal framework for overseas military deployments. In short, Japan will remain a ‘reluctant realist’, as Michael Green, a Japan scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it a few years ago. But that will not stop others, especially China, from continuing to observe the recent activity in Japan’s security and defence policy with great interest.

About the author

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Dr Axel Berkofsky (Germany) is Adjunct Professor at the University of Milan’s Contemporary Asia Research Centre (CARC) and Co-Head of the research unit ‘Chinese investments in Europe’ a the Centre of Advanced Studies on Contemporary China (CASCC), Turin. Previously, he ran the EU–Asia Programme at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC). He has lived in Tokyo for three years and has published extensively on Asian affairs, EU–Asia relations, and Japan’s and China’s foreign and security policies. He obtained his PhD in Asian studies and political sciences from the University of Hamburg in 2002.

 © SIPRI 2009