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Friday, Aug. 22, 2003

Getting realistic on defense

LONDON -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government has taken some sensible steps toward a more realistic defense policy. In particular there has been some easing in dealing with emergency situations. Japanese Self-Defense Forces can also now be sent to Iraq to support peacekeeping there, but they will not be allowed to go to areas where they might become involved in conflict.

Considering present circumstances in Iraq, this proviso may nullify the proposed deployment.

The size and capacity of the SDF are sometimes overlooked in Japan and abroad. Despite restrictions on Japanese defense expenditures, the SDF has a significant capability and could make an important contribution to peace and stability in Asia. I have deliberately used the term "could" rather than "do" because of the severe legal and constitutional restraints on how Japanese forces can be used.

In any discussion of Japanese defense policy it is first necessary to define the nature of the potential threats to Japanese security. There is no evidence or likelihood in the foreseeable future that any power will or could mount an invasion of Japan, but this does not mean that there are no potential threats to Japanese security from other powers in Northeast Asia.

Of course, neither the United States nor any European powers pose any threat to Japan. We can also rule out any threat from a democratic South Korea. China, too, is unlikely to pose a direct threat toward Japan, especially when it is preoccupied with its own economic development. There remains, of course, a potential danger arising from the Chinese attitude toward Taiwan. If there were to be an increase in tension between Beijing and Taipei and a diversion was needed to draw attention away from possible unrest in China, it is possible that trouble in the Taiwan Straits could impinge directly on Japanese interests. But this remains hypothetical.

The main direct threat to Japan is posed by North Korea, but this needs to be put in perspective. Pyongyang probably has a few missiles that could be aimed at Japanese targets. It may have three or four nuclear weapons and probably has the potential to make more, but none have so far been tested. It is hard to see what purpose would be served by using such untried weapons against Japanese targets, except to cause mayhem in Japan and in Asia.

One cannot, of course, rule out leaders as isolated from reality as Kim Jong Il from behaving irrationally, but we must presume that his main aim is the survival both of himself and his regime, and that any attack on a Japanese target would lead to such fierce retaliation from Japan's ally, the U.S., that he could not survive.

A much greater threat to Japan comes from international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

If so, there are important policy implications for Japan. The first priority must be to maintain maximum diplomatic pressure on North Korea to ensure that any nuclear weapons, if they exist, are destroyed and that no further weapons are developed. The regime also needs to be deterred and prevented from exporting weapons systems and spreading trouble by exporting hard drugs.

Regime change in North Korea is desirable, certainly in the long run, but it may not be necessary to force an immediate change. Japan can help in dealing with North Korea through diplomacy and, while attempting to open up North Korea to the outside world, with stepped-up maritime and air patrols to track and stop dangerous shipments from North Korea when legally feasible.

The main emphasis of Japanese defense policy, however, should surely be to increase its ability to play an active role in counterterrorism and U.N. peacekeeping. This means a further effort to get legislation passed by the Diet to allow members of the SDF to take part in more dangerous situations, even if this means accepting some casualties.

Japan must always be conscious of Chinese and Korean sensitivities, but if participation were limited to U.N. approved and sponsored actions it should be possible to deal with any protests from these countries. The Ground Self-Defense Force is likely to have the main task in such U.N. peacekeeping. It will need lightly armed but highly mobile forces with air support, including helicopters and cargo transports. This may require the procurement of different weapons from some of those now being used by the GSDF.

The additional enabling legislation should not make a constitutional amendment necessary. Article 9 now seems outdated, but any attempt to amend it would be highly controversial and would inevitably lead to demands for other changes that would polarize Japanese politics and public opinion.

The nuclear threat from North Korea has led a few Japanese hawks to suggest that Japan withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons. Any such step would arouse huge protests within Japan and from other subscribers to the NPT. It would jeopardize Japan's alliance with America and would be regarded as highly provocative by both China and the Koreas. As it would increase rather than decrease the threat to Japan, no responsible Japanese politician should publicly advocate such a policy.

The authorities face a number of dilemmas in deciding the appropriate size and armaments of the SDF to meet potential and actual threats. Senior commanders inevitably think first of the threats they faced when they were young and tend to want to use old tactics, weapons and strategy when new thinking is required.

Interservice rivalry also makes it very difficult to make significant changes in the allocation of funds between the different services. It requires strong political leadership to achieve the necessary changes.

Unfortunately, the post of minister in charge of the Defense Agency is rarely filled by a political heavyweight. It could be a key post in future years.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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