JPRI Critique Vol. XXII No. 2 (February 2016)
Japan’s Strategic Defense
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher

Once elected as Japan’s Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo made it his business to strengthen Japan’s defenses in Asia. Sensing that the issue posed more than a financial problem, especially as Japan carries one of the highest national debts of any advanced industrial economy, he looked for new allies and better ways to spend what was available. He wanted new allies who spent heavily on national defense, reaching as far away as Australia, which increased its defense spending by 27 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On March 13, 2007, Abe signed a Mutual Defense Pact with Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard. This led Howard’s government to order the newest high-tech submarines from Japan, reducing the unit cost of each sub that Japan also bought for its own Naval Self Defense Forces, now the third largest blue-water-naval force in Asian waters after American and Chinese navies.

Eyeing the giant of South Asia next, Abe turned his talents to wooing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself seeking allies lest Beijing threaten India. According to the IMF, between 2005 and 2014 India increased its defense spending by 39 percent, a fact that made New Delhi a formidable ally in Japan’s new network. Recognizing that no Southeast Asian government was among the top fifteen global defense spenders, the most Tokyo could afford to do appeared in the form of new patrol boats gifted to Hanoi and Manila for their stand-offs with Beijing in the South China Sea over miniature islands and reefs.

All these foreign outreaches added luster to Abe as a strong leader, but Tokyo defense analysts expressed a heightened concern over the key issue of North Korea, as they saw it a dire menace. Tokyo had watched uneasily as Pyongyang conducted successful nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016. Worse news followed. In March 2014 the North Korean military tested medium range missiles. It did not calm nerves when the United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported in their “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program” that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. The DIA further opined that North Korea possessed more than 200 Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles (1,300 km range), which could reach Tokyo in ten minutes. If an enemy were to try—via a preemptive first-strike, to eliminate these missiles—Pyongyang had outfoxed those potential enemies; they mounted them on some fifty mobile launchers.

Faced with this bleak strategic news, Tokyo opted for missile shields, spending cover ten billion dollars for a land-based PAC-3 system and a sea-based PAC-3 system. Sensing this needed improving, the Japanese Ministry of Defense has announced it will purchase more Aegis destroyers with SM-3 Block IIA advanced systems. The big questions remained: should Tokyo build a second-strike capable of surviving a first-strike and thereby punishing the aggressors? This question remains under consideration with Japan’s leading ally, the United States. American policy stays the same; the Japanese remain under the American nuclear umbrella. The question remains the same: would the United States risk an American city by striking back at a Japanese attacker? South Korea faces the same dilemma. The answer remains simple but spoken softly only behind bamboo curtains as it use to be behind the iron curtain.

In simple terms, ever since 1947 and the days of the U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade, the United States offered its allies American hostages. Everyone knew that the ten thousand American soldiers in the Berlin unit could not withstand an attack by 250,000 crack Red Army troops surrounding them in East German. The Soviets knew that also. But we knew that they knew that an attack on these U.S hostages meant war with the United States. No U.S. president, having lost ten thousand citizens, could survive in office without striking back. Likewise the United States keeps boots-on-the-ground in both Japan and South Korea, in harms way but hostages to peace.

Noting that Seoul and Tokyo both shared a tripwire with the United States, Abe began to approach the Iron Lady of South Korea, President Park Geun-hye. Abe met her at her residence in Seoul, the Blue House, in November 2015. Her concern about North Korea’s military adventures into the nuclear arena matched those of Abe. On his part Abe apologized again for WW II issues such as “comfort women.” On her part, eager to move on to the future, Park accepted the apology. Then on Sunday, February 7, 2016, the bottom fell out of what passed as a sunshine policy toward the North. On that date Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, the Shining Star, claiming it put that nation closer to space exploration; others believing it put North Korea closer to intercontinental attack capabilities. Even Beijing had warned Pyongyang not to proceed with that test. As usual the client refused, biting the hand that feeds it.

Reactions came quickly. Seoul announced that it would shut down the joint South-North industrial complex on the North Korean side of the border at Kaesong—a complex that had generated $560 million, which Seoul accused Pyongyang of using to bolster its nuclear budget while its people starved. Tokyo backed Seoul, announcing further economic sanctions. Seoul cut off water and power to the Kaesong complex and repatriated its citizens. At the United Nations its fifteen member Security Council condemned the launch. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers insisted on strong economic sanctions. Both Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi and his Russian colleague Vitaly Churkin demurred fearing collapse of their errant ally. They feared Korean refugees flooding across their borders, a la Syria. For their reluctance they reaped a fearful reward: the United States sent an additional Patriot missiles battery to back up its forces in Korea. Meanwhile another U.S. air defense battery already in Korea started conducting ballistic missile training using the Patriot system at Osan Air Base south of Seoul. And to Beijing and Moscow’s chagrin, Seoul announced that it would start negotiations with the the United States on deploying the advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, possibly a threat to Chinese and Russian missiles should they be launched.

Mao’s Marxist Mandate

Some recent Asian history would help explain Asia today. At the close of World War II much of coastal and island Asia smoldered in ruins, most especially Japan. In fact, for northeast Asia the war never ended. China went on with its civil war, as did the Korean peninsula. By 1949 the internecine Chinese struggle ended in China proper, Mao Zedong and his communist forming the People’s Republic of China on the mainland while Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalists fled to Taiwan reestablishing the Republic of China there. In June 1950 the smoldering Korean civil war broke out into full-scale attacks, ending in a truce only after American and Chinese interventions. All during this tumultuous time the American military occupied defeated Japan, the American shogun no less than General Douglas MacArthur.

While Mao brought economic disaster and death to millions of Chinese via foolish central planning on the order of the backward Great Leap Forward or by unleashing Red Guard teenagers to attack their elders, offshore Asia along with peninsula-parts began to recover, none more spectacularly than Japan. Then a decade later Taiwan and South Korea followed, each earning the acronym NIC, Newly Industrial Country. Both also had a heritage as poor Japanese colonies; yet their leap into modernity went at bullet-train speed. However neither had an American-written constitution foisted on them by an American Caesar as a condition to end an occupation. Hence both South Korea and Taiwan entered the industrial age as military dictatorships. But after decades of outside prodding and internal demonstrations, many bloody, both Taipei and Seoul made their painful transfer to constitutional democracy. As an extra assurance to Taipei, the U.S. Navy kept elements of its 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Straits, more to keep Chiang from going back and Mao from coming over. Tension still exists, as the recent Taiwan elections did not favor closer relations with the PRC. Taiwanese see the political difficulties of Hong Kong’s assimilation back into the PRC and want none of it.

Today this trading triad of Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei faces a new China rid of Marxist missteps, giving the global economy a capitalist giant to reckon with on all fronts, particularly when it comes to military spending. Between 2005 and 2014 Beijing’s military expenditures have increased by an astounding 167%, which amounts to 216 billion dollars. While fast, this did not happen overnight. When Mao died in 1976, his hand picked successor, Hua Guafeng, began a slow reform of the inherited political economy, first arresting the notorious Gang of Four, then allowing for economic initiatives. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, accelerated these changes, starting in agriculture followed rapidly in manufacturing. By the early 1980s the Chinese goose began to lay many golden eggs, which the current leader, Xi Jinping, elected General Secretary of the Communist Party on November 15, 2012, continues to guard. Xi knows that much of his military budget goes to halt internal strife in both Tibet and Xinjiang, which cover almost 40% of China’s landmass, as well as the attempts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and build, for the first time since the Ming dynasty, a blue-water navy. Marble boats at the old Summer Palace might have amused the Dowager Empress; not so the stone-faced Xi.

For Xi, as for Abe, debt poses dangers. Chinese government and private debt now stands at 240 percent of GDP (about $25 trillion). Gigantic outdated state-run industries require huge subsidies. And as the Chinese middle class grew so did its gangster class. Beijing has a number of Bernie Madoffs with their Ponzi schemes, the best recent example being Ding Ning who founded Ezubao, which lost its investors about 50 billion yuan ($7.6 billion). Schemers scheme, unafraid of the dire consequences if caught. Unlike in Japan and the United States, the guilty party receives a death sentence. Allies also cost money; regimes in Africa and Asia want Beijing to bankroll big projects for development. Helping Pakistan involves harming any hope for better relations with New Delhi. And then the braggadocio of Kim Jong Un would test the patience of Confucius. Claiming to have tested in 2016 both a hydrogen bomb and a space probe chilled relations across the Yalu River, with Pyongyang’s heir to a wobbly dynasty expecting Beijing to feed and fuel his nation as well as act as its banker. But Beijing’s Ministry of Finance does not function an international charity; one has to make deposits in order to make withdrawals.

Almost unnoticed by Asia watchers, a tectonic shift in trade patterns has realigned the complex interdependence of America and its Northeast Asian allies. Once supreme, the United States served to buy and to sell goods in those markets; it still does. But the biggest market for goods from Tokyo and Seoul is now Beijing. Many high-end, high-tech products made in China contain parts made in Japan or South Korea. Manufacturing and engineering excellence pays, something that both Tokyo and Seoul understand. So does Beijing; hence its rhetoric, even when bellicose, often hides the fact that China's leaders do not want war. Peace suits them best, for their keenest interest remains staying in power. Authoritarians admire Xi’s canny balancing of free markets and party control, but will the rising demand for reform, coming from the newly enlarged and empowered middle class, make for a muddle that could lead to disaster such as a stock market crash to rival 1927? China’s environmental quagmire alone could bring down a government. Each year The Economist ranks the twenty most polluted cities on the globe; about seventeen of them are usually in China. How would even Hercules fix that?

Abe understates that it is not in Japan’s strategic interest to have China collapse and take with it the new world order of the yet young 21st century. Even the Tokyo-Beijing contretemps over the Senkaku Islands should not spoil the rebuilt Asian prosperity. Inasmuch as Abe recognized this, his attempt to work with Xi holds out hope. Abe’s ally in Washington also has financial wizards watching warily, wondering when and where to move if the Chinese economic slowdown should suddenly skid out of control. Chinese investment groups, looking for greener pastures, have started to buy American trophy hotels and Hollywood production companies. In 2014 they bought the iconic Art-Deco Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. In early 2016 they bought the Hollywood production company Legendary Entertainment, and to top that they purchased the Chicago Stock Exchange on February 5. The head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Dr. Janet Yellen, warned on February 10 that the Fed could put the brakes on future interest rate hikes if the United States were to face volatile markets and stagnant growth in China. Buyers beware. In an effort to stabilize relations, Xi met earlier with President Obama at the White House on September 24-25, 2015. Abe had done the same on April 28, 2015, even giving a talk to the U.S. Congress. Abe proved the better talker, and talk in Washington can win you many important friends.

Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, a member of the JPRI advisory board, has achieved distinction in many fields—most notably, military, academe, and media/cultural affairs. Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. For his second act, he received a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, then taught there in the Military Science, History, and Political Science Departments, rising to Vice Chair of Politics. For the past two decades he has also been a commentator on international affairs for television and radio as well as a popular host/interviewer for cultural events throughout the Bay Area. He is the author of The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990), Economic Earthquakes: Converting Defense Cuts to Economic Opportunities (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, Berkeley, 1994), and North American Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1998), along with numerous essays and reviews.


The author would like to thank Dr. Narushige Michishita of the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies for his enlightening lecture on Japanese Defense Strategies at the University of California Berkeley’s Japan Center on February 8, 2016.

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