Self-Defense Forces May Soon Look Like a Modern Military

Bryan Bender is the bureau chief for Stratfor, a global intelligence provider

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is subtly calling for strengthening his country's Self-Defense Forces and expanding their reach. But a standing military and the right of belligerency remain technically illegal under the Japanese constitution. Yet, the U.S. desire to strike a lower profile in Asia in the face of an ascending China may force Japan to rearm.

Tokyo already has most of the components of a large, modern military. Japanese naval forces are becoming more skilled at fighting simulated battles abroad, as evidenced by a spate of recent exercises. A U.S. military report found that the Japanese are becoming more technologically capable of operating alongside American forces. Japan also is signing basing agreements abroad. In military journals, Japanese officers are trying to understand the challenges of conflict far from home.

Creating a credible Japanese military deterrent in East Asia, after more than a half century of isolationism, will place Tokyo at the center of the competition for influence in the region. During his first policy speech to Japan's parliament, Koizumi pushed for a foreign policy independent of the United States. "We must not allow ourselves to be complacent with peace and become oblivious to the possibility of disturbances," he said, adding "It is the duty of the political leadership to consider what kind of structure should be created in the event that the state or the people are exposed to crises."

Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka echoed Koizumi's remarks last week. She told German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that Tokyo's military alliance with the United States is an "easy way" for Japan to enjoy security. But now, she said, "It is necessary for Japan to become more independent in light of its economic power."

But Koizumi's ambition is almost incidental to the emerging realities of Japanese politics. Domestic support for Article 9 of the constitution, which commits Japan to pacifism, is mixed: Half the population wants to revise the article. The semantic difference between a self-defense force and a military is breaking down, too.

The Koizumi government has inherited one of the world's biggest and most modern armed forces, backed by one of the largest military-industrial complexes. Japan took delivery of the first of 130 multirole F-2 fighter-bombers in September 2000. An advanced version of the U.S. F-16 assembled in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the F-2 offers Japan's Self-Defense Forces new combat capabilities. It will be outfitted with the latest air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, including the Maverick air-to-surface attack missile. The plane, which is reported to have a range of 620 miles, will replace aging F-1 fighters and support 200 U.S.-built F-15s that Japan now flies.

Despite a decade-long recession, Japan spends about $50 billion annually on defense. It has the largest navy in the Pacific, after the United States, and its ground soldiers outnumber those of the British Army and Marines combined. Its steady military buildup has been historically sold to the Japanese public as a concession to the United States, which wants Japan's help in securing stability in Asia.

Yet, during the past four years, Japan's military has begun to bridge the gap between being a self-defense force and a regional military. The transformation began in 1997 when a defense white paper took a regional approach to military strategy. Two years later, while taking part in U.S. exercises in Guam, Japan deployed fighter aircraft outside its territory for the first time since World War II.

That same year, the self-defense forces took delivery of four Boeing 767 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, which improve the expeditionary capabilities of air forces. Last year, Japan's forces exercised with other regional armies in Pacific Reach 2000. And the Japanese government concluded an agreement that will allow its forces to use bases in Singapore in case of a crisis.

This pattern is continuing in 2001. Last month, Japan sent officers to observe Cobra Gold, a joint Thailand-U.S. military exercise, the largest U.S. involvement in the region. Tokyo has announced plans to buy up to four more 767s to serve as aerial refueling platforms; these will increase the range of land-based F-15s to 3,000 miles. Japan's recent purchase of four Aegis-class destroyers will dramatically improve its ability to project power and conduct naval surveillance.

Washington is playing an important role in pushing Japan toward its new role. The Bush administration increasingly views Japan as the linchpin to Asian security. If Japan will do more of the heavy lifting of containing an expansionist China, Washington can lower its own profile, the cost of deployments and the exposure of its forces to attack.

A recent study by the Rand Corp., conducted for the Defense Department, is now circulating at the Pentagon. Titled "The United States and Asia," the study highlights Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, as critical and active partners in maintaining security in Asia in the 21st century. This view dovetails with the administration's goal: Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, during a trip to Japan last month, encouraged a reappraisal of some of the constitutional restrictions placed on Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

As Japan becomes increasingly involved in security affairs and fields a more aggressive navy, the United States may find itself contending with Japan over competing security interests.

"What is really worrisome is not simply Japan's current military capability," according to Rand. "Japan has both the financial and technical means to transform its military into powerful strategic forces in a relatively short period of time. Absent a U.S. presence, Japan may very well attempt to fill the power vacuum by becoming a major hegemonic contestant in the region."

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