Abe’s Gambit: Japan Reorients Its Defense Posture

China’s aggressive actions in the East China Sea, combined with other factors, especially North Korea’s continuing intransigence, have created an increasingly hostile security environment for Japan. Its response to these events can be seen in the impressive political rebirth of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party. While Abe, currently serving as prime minister for a second time, was elected largely because of his economic policies and the ineptitude of the formerly ruling Democratic Party of Japan, he has used his mandate to press forward with long needed, albeit controversial, defense and security reforms that indicate the seriousness with which Tokyo takes its current situation. With China looming up in front of them, and Pyongyang posing lesser but still worrisome threats, the Japanese have become acutely aware of the fact that their Self-Defense Forces (SDF) have one hundred and forty thousand ground troops, one hundred and forty-one maritime vessels, and four hundred and ten aircraft, while China’s People’s Liberation Army has one million six hundred thousand troops and North Korea has one million soldiers. Meanwhile, North Korea maintains a significant, if decaying, navy and air force, with one hundred and ninety vessels and approximately six hundred aircraft. China’s much more capable maritime and air assets include nine hundred and seventy vessels and two thousand five hundred and eighty aircraft.

The reforms Abe seeks encompass Japan’s entire national security infrastructure but focus especially on the SDF, until now restricted by the nation’s postwar Constitution from playing a role in international security issues commensurate with the country’s economic power. The Abe government regards the crises Japan faces as serious enough that it has considered trying to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces the country’s right to war as a sovereign nation. But such a measure requires not only a majority vote in a national referendum but also a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Japanese National Diet. Although his party controls both houses, the two-thirds bar remains beyond Abe’s reach. But while constitutional revision remains a long shot, the prime minister is also pursuing the parallel track of constitutional reinterpretation as a way of bolstering the SDF by other means. An Abe-appointed Panel on Collective Self-Defense has already submitted proposals that call for a host of security measures, including the release of a national security strategy, a new bill protecting against leaks of classified information, and the creation of a new US-style national security council in 2014. The object, although it is rarely directly articulated, is to allow the SDF to expand its role abroad.

The end of 2013 was a significant moment for Japan’s defense planning because it marked the deadline for the Ministry of Defense to submit a revised National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). The guidelines “set forth the basic policies for Japan’s security, the security environment surrounding Japan, and basic guidelines for the upgrading of Japan’s defense capability development, as well as the significance and role of Japan’s defense force, the specific organization of the SDF, and the deployment targets for major equipment.” The 2013 NDPG is the fifth version of the guidelines since the first NDPG in 1976. Previous versions have lasted more than a decade. That the previous one was only in effect for three years shows how threatened Japan now feels by developments in the region.

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In response to Abe’s changes, some in the international and even the national press have noted darkly that Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960, once served as a Cabinet minister during World War II, the last time the country engaged in a military buildup. But however hawkish Abe may be, most Japanese see his defense reforms and the revamp of the NDPG as a rational response to an increasingly hostile security environment. While Abe has dramatized the urgency of Japan’s regional challenges, the response has been building for the last several years. The 2010 NDPG, for instance, called for a shift in Japan’s defense doctrine—away from a reactive approach toward a “dynamic defense” centered on a more versatile and mobile SDF that prioritizes advanced technologies, intelligence, and surveillance capacities and amphibious warfare procurement. The 2013 NDPG will focus on refining the concepts in the 2010 paper.

The changes to the SDF in the 2010 NDPG indicate the kind of conflict Japan is preparing for. With regard to the Ground SDF (GSDF), the review called for one fewer antiaircraft artillery group and a reduction of two hundred tanks. On the Maritime SDF (MSDF) side, it added one destroyer and six submarines. On the Air SDF (ASDF) front, the number of aircraft was actually reduced by ten planes from 2004, but the review called for an enhancement of capacity by purchasing forty-two F-35 joint strike fighter jets to replace its aging F-4s. These jets are tentatively scheduled for introduction into the ASDF by 2023. Tokyo is also planning on deploying, despite a host of controversies, the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft by next year.

The Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP), which came about before Abe took office, is meant to complement the guidance outlined in the NDPG and work toward operationalizing dynamic defense. It also details of SDF procurement for fiscal years 2011 to 2015. In line with evolving threat perceptions in the East China Sea, for example, it indicates that the defense forces will establish “a new coastal surveillance unit, and will begin to form a first-response unit to station in the island areas of southwestern Japan, to gather intelligence, monitor situations, and respond swiftly when incidents occur.” Specifically, the intention is to modernize the SDF so it can “effectively respond to attacks on remote islets and maintain air superiority and command of the sea while rapidly deploying troops as the situation unfolds through mobile deployment capability and amphibious capabilities.”

As tensions continue with China, evidenced by Beijing’s imposition in November of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the SDF will also look to further enhance its relationship with the US military. The MTDP stresses the necessity of joint operations with the US and improving the joint US-Japan response structure—all with an eye to improving deterrence and readiness in the East China Sea.


If the most pressing current concern for Tokyo is an assertive China that threatens to forcefully dispute Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, the Abe government is also concerned about an increasingly well-equipped and volatile regime in North Korea. Of less importance in recent years, but still a lingering security concern, are Russia’s strategic intentions in the Pacific.

Conflict on the Korean Peninsula has traditionally been the most prominent factor in the strategic calculus of defense planners in Japan. Indeed, the country has yet to recover from the “missile shock” it experienced in 2006 when Pyongyang launched “tests” of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile into the Sea of Japan. Eight years later, the ballistic missile threat from the North remains one of the most pressing defense concerns for Japan’s defense forces. Of less concern is North Korea’s million-man army or its significant, but aging, navy. As Pyongyang continues to modernize its ballistic missile technology and improve accuracy and range, the SDF will continue to react nervously through anti-ballistic missile defense and extended deterrence commitments from the United States.

Compounding the threat of potential missile attacks is North Korea’s evolving nuclear weapons program. In addition to three nuclear tests (including one in February 2013), North Korea has added uranium enrichment capabilities to its pre-existing stock of weapons-grade plutonium. Its extensive chemical weapons program worries Japan. While there is uncertainty regarding the quantity of chemical agents stockpiled by the regime, most estimates range from one thousand to five thousand tons. However, even if the North’s program is at the low end of estimates, its capacity is bolstered by a variety of sophisticated delivery vehicles for chemical attacks that include missiles, artillery, and airborne bombs.

But the dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese) has shifted the attention of Japanese defense experts away from the threats posed by Pyongyang. Japan’s evolving defense priorities on China focus on four overlapping areas: preserving territorial integrity and control in the East China Sea; continuing to insist on transparency for China’s military procurement; adapting to China’s emerging military assets (especially those making it an overnight naval power); and mitigating Chinese attempts at cyber warfare and cyber espionage.

The situation in the East China Sea is difficult because it changes on an almost weekly basis as Beijing becomes bolder in its attempts to force Japan into admitting that there is a dispute. China’s approach is to assert sovereignty by sending a virtual armada of official and non-official maritime vessels into Japanese-controlled waters to demonstrate Tokyo’s inability to effectively control the seas. Last year’s annual report by the Japanese Defense Ministry clearly defined the problem: “China has been rapidly expanding its maritime activities both qualitatively and quantitatively. With regard to its activity in the sea/air area surrounding Japan, Chinese naval vessels and naval/air-force airplanes have been observed conducting what appeared to be training exercises or information gathering activities. A large number of Chinese government ships and aircraft belonging to maritime law-enforcement agencies have also been observed which were engaged in monitoring activities for the protection of its maritime.”

This coercion has now also spread to the skies. On November 23, 2013, the Chinese Ministry of Defense announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea that obliges aircrafts flying in the zone to accommodate a number of rules including the identification of flight plans and the presence of any transponders and the requirement to engage in two-way radio communication with Chinese authorities. The unilateral imposition of these new rules will be enforced by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, which will “adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.” This escalation demonstrates Beijing’s impatience with an incremental approach to changing the status quo in the East China Sea.

But even as it scrambles to react to current Chinese moves on the ground, Japan must also recognize that it is Beijing’s development of anti-satellite weapons, which are able to hamper military command and intelligence functions, that could present the most acute risk in the coming years. The rapid growth of China’s defense spending, and its lack of transparency, have further heightened suspicions in Tokyo and Washington that Beijing has intentions that transcend its stated goal of territorial integrity to include aspirations of regional hegemony.


As a way of mitigating the hawkish overtones of his new defense policies, Prime Minister Abe has stressed that in addition to becoming more formidable as a military force, the SDF should also engage in missions that promote “proactive pacifism.” One compelling example of this came when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last fall. While China appeared miserly with its initial pledge of assistance, Japan seized the opportunity by sending more than one thousand SDF personnel to the disaster areas. The deployment was significant not only because of the vaccinations and medication treatment it provided, but because it represented one of the largest mobilizations of the defense forces outside of Japan since the force was created after World War II. In this regard, it was a shakedown cruise for future, non-pacifist missions.

Another example of this enhanced SDF role is Japan’s counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa. Tokyo currently deploys a number of destroyers and P-3C patrol aircraft to ensure the safe passage of Japanese vessels, as mandated under the country’s anti-piracy legislation.

Of course, Abe’s plan to grow the SDF is still complicated by a number of legislative obstacles, although one of the most significant was resolved late in November, when the Japanese Diet approved a bill allowing the defense forces to facilitate the ground transport of Japanese nationals in foreign countries. This is a procedure that nearly all modern militaries and governments authorize, a shortcoming underlined in January 2013 during the Abe administration’s frustrated response to the hostage-taking of several of its nationals in Algeria.

The next few months will be significant in terms of the direction of the SDF reforms and the new security architecture the Ministry of Defense implements. The Abe government knows very well that the issue now confronting it is political rather than military and that there is still significant domestic resistance to change. As the government tries to build its military capacity and integrate it with the US “pivot” toward the region, its challenge will be to smoothly turn around Japan’s military presence in the midst of turbulent seas at home as well as off its coasts.

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan for the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He can be reached at jbmllr@gmail.com.

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