Editorial: White paper on defense

Merely showing off power not enough

The first white paper on defense since the formation of the Abe administration has been presented to the Cabinet and approved. It is characterized by its accentuation of a sense of vigilance toward China and North Korea in language stronger than any that has been used before. This may mark the start of the transformation of Japan’s defense policy.

In particular, the white paper directly criticizes China’s repeated incursions into Japan’s territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), referring to this as “dangerous behavior that could lead to unforeseen circumstances.”

With regard to North Korea as well, the white paper takes a tough stance, stating that that nation’s development of ballistic missiles has “taken it to a new level.” Growing concern about North Korea’s move to miniaturize nuclear warheads is also expressed.

The dangerous, provocative actions of China and North Korea are causing further tension in Japan’s security environment, and there is no doubt that the white paper is based on reality.

But a crisis can’t be avoided merely by Japan taking a tough stance. To the contrary, it is important to bear in mind that conflicts may escalate.

In that sense, we are concerned about the many parts of the white paper that seem to express a double standard with regard to an exclusively defense-oriented policy.

The main text of the white paper advocates a basic policy of an exclusively defensive posture. It states that the exercise of the right of collective defense in response to an attack on an ally regarded as an attack against Japan is not permitted under Article 9 of the Constitution. This is what has been stated in the white papers of the past.

On the other hand, a sidebar to the white paper addresses the capability to attack enemy bases and the issue of giving the Self-Defense Forces a function like that of the U.S. Marines. It cites remarks made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when responding to questions in the Diet session during which he stated his willingness to discuss these two issues.

Attacking an enemy base refers to striking the enemy first in the event that Japan is about to be attacked. People have pointed out more persistently than ever before that this would go beyond an exclusively defensive posture.

A unit that functions like the Marines would presumably be intended to defend islands, with China’s oceanic activities in mind. But the primary role of the U.S. Marines is to send troops to the front lines in overseas war zones. If a similar unit were to become part of the Self-Defense Forces, it would no doubt spark even further resentment by neighboring nations.

The sidebar to the white paper also refers to a panel of experts who advocated lifting the ban on the exercise of the right of collective defense, and it takes a positive stance, stating, “As the government, we would like to see debate on this.”

Abe’s thinking is apparent throughout the white paper, and the government seems likely to reflect this in the outline of its new defense program to be formulated this year. But that would clearly go beyond the postwar defense policy Japan has maintained thus far.

What should be done to defend Japan’s security in the most effective manner while avoiding unnecessary turmoil? It is too risky to simply advocate expanding the options for resorting to force.

Based on the “growing interdependence in the global community,” last year’s white paper emphasized the importance of “undertaking diplomatic efforts along with enhancing defense capability.”

But all that remained this year was one part that stated, “An invasion cannot be prevented by diplomacy and other non-military means alone.” Since Xi Jinping took the reins of government in China, Japan’s relations with that nation have become so frosty that it is not even possible to hold a summit, and the hot line that the defense agencies of the two nations agreed on has yet to go into operation.

The current situation cannot be improved simply by Japan making a show of force while continuing to fail to implement even the most basic confidence-building diplomatic measures. The government must not neglect the balance between force and dialogue.

(Originally published on July 11, 2013)