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Herbert London: Tokyo's Military Options

Tokyo policy makers have been engaged in diplomatic overdrive in an effort to resolve a territorial dispute with Russia over four southern islands in the Kuril Island chain. This dispute has stunted bilateral relations for six decades.

The island chain was taken by the former Soviet Union during the final day of World War II and although isolated and rocky, it is believed mineral rights on the islands have substantial value. While I am convinced this dispute will be resolved through negotiation when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Vladimir Putin meet, the incident is a harsh reminder that the Japanese Constitution compromises Japan’s ability to act unilaterally defending its interests.

Article Nine, not only militates against the development of nuclear weapons, it also constrains the use of military force for any purpose except defense.  Although Japan has a navy and army, these forces are technically part of the “national police force.”

With a United States poised to drawdown its military commitment to Asia along with the widespread belief in Japan that you cannot count on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and protection of the sea lanes over the long term, change seems inevitable. As I see it, the change will come in three forms.

First, the proliferation of nations with nuclear weapons, specifically North Korea, has put Japan at risk. A missile fired from Pyongyang will arrive in Fukaoka in thirty seconds. Most Japanese policy analysts believe Japan needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent, despite an understandable national distaste for such weapons. But as the memory of World War II fades, the logic for nuclear weapons becomes increasingly evident.

Second, the Japanese defense force will be obliged to act with increasing vigor as an assertive China deploys its submarines in the Sea of Japan. The difference between a defensive force permitted by the Constitution and an offensive force is a distinction without a difference. Japan has regional interests that must be defended. It is also conscious of a China that sees itself as the Middle Kingdom with all nations nearly within its historic orbit.

Third, Japan is likely to play a major regional role in establishing a multilateral military condominium designed to neutralize Chinese influence and possible adventurism. Already Japan and India have engaged in joint military maneuvers with China as a hypothetical adversary. Other nations, including South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, would be candidates for this combined defense force. Obviously the catalyst for this undertaking is a perception the U.S. will not play its post World War II role as regional “balance wheel.” The U.S. may assist and encourage and perhaps even participate in a Pacific version of NATO, but it will be up to Japan to offer the heft and diplomatic cement in keeping this defensive unit together.

The world is changing and China is the Asian wild card whose imperial ambitions have not yet been clarified. On one matter there isn’t any confusion: China intends to displace the U.S. as the Asian military hegemon. As history demonstrates, a political vacuum is not sustainable. A U.S. unwilling or unable to defend its allies means they must succumb to the influence of others or find ways to defend themselves. The latter course of action seems most plausible.

As a consequence, Japanese military doctrine will be undergoing a transformation in the years ahead with an emphasis on deterring North Korea, constraining China and protecting Japanese territorial interests. The path ahead will be littered with obstacles. However, for Japan there really aren’t sensible alternatives and the military establishment, such as it is, understands that point. 

Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.