Japan’s Military Copes With Larger Role, Smaller Budget
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI, And HISANE MASAKI, TOKYO
Japan’s military is experiencing growing pains.
Spurred by North Korean weapon tests and U.S. pressure to take more responsibility for self-defense and regional security, Japan is expanding the roles of its Self Defense Force (SDF) and promoting its Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry. But old problems persist.
For example, the military budget will likely shrink for the fifth year in a row. On Dec. 24, the Cabinet passed a $41.75 billion spending plan for 2007, down $106.96 million, some 0.3 percent, from 2006. The budget, which is expected to pass the Diet, will take effect with the new fiscal year in April.
But missile defense’s share will soar to $1.54 billion, up $360 million or 30.5 percent from 2006. An additional $102.7 million will be used to shift U.S troops around Okinawa, including $42.2 million for Japanese communities affected by the move.
“The increased missile defense-related expenditures, such as PAC-3 [Patriot] and SM-3 [Standard anti-air missile] procurements, retrofitting of the Aegis destroyers, upgrading of EP-3 patrol planes and radar facilities, etc., are cutting into each service’s budget,” said Yoichiro Sato, professor at the Honolulu-based Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies.
This frustrates Japanese who want a more advanced military sooner.
“Every single year since the ’50s, the Defense Agency bought a capital ship, either a destroyer or other large warship,” said Lance Gatling, president of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates. “It did so because they retire ships quite early by Western standards, and thus were able to insert technology into new ships rather than through class upgrades. However, the costs were enormous.
“But this year, Japan fiscal year 2006, they didn’t buy a new capital ship; they couldn’t afford it, because money went to missile defense and C4I upgrades needed to prepare Japan’s missile defense system,” he said.
Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo, said that low spending is causing Japan to lose ground to China.
“I have been frustrated by the fact that Japan’s defense budget has been lowered for five years in a row compared with China’s military expansion, with a double-digit increase for 18 years. I am afraid that the power balance between China and the U.S.-Japan alliance in the Asia-Pacific region is beginning to tilt toward China’s favor,” Kawamura said.
He said that Japan must consider the overall East Asian security environment, not just the North Korean threat. He added that ballistic missile defense is paramount, but also needed are increased vigilance to defend the outer islands from invasion and more patrols and surveillance of sea and airspace.
Such talk has raised hackles in China. Beijing has repeatedly frowned on any changes that increase the deployable range of Japanese troops, as displayed by the participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1993.
“Recent procurements that invited China’s complaints include refueling planes, which can be used to extend the airborne time of Japan’s fighter planes, but also are necessary to extend the range of its cargo planes in PKO [peacekeeping operations] missions,” said Sato.
Coming of Age, Slowly
On Dec. 15, the Diet passed two defense-related laws. One upgraded Japan’s Defense Agency to a full ministry, and another legally switched the SDF’s overseas peacekeeping operations from a supplemental duty to a primary one.
“The legislation does not change the de facto activities of the SDF, but merely recognizes what has been the case for many years: that the SDF gives logistical support to the U.S. in matters concerning Japanese defense, and Japan’s manpower and logistical contributions to U.N. peacekeeping are increasingly important,” said Peter Woolley, author of “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.”
The upgrade to ministry will give the military more power and raise morale. Previously, the Defense Agency was under the control of the Cabinet Office, which was headed by the prime minister. The agency was not allowed to attend ministry meetings or make decisions.
Now, the new Defense Ministry will have a seat at Cabinet meetings on equal standing with other ministries. The defense minister also will have the power to call emergency Cabinet meetings and send budget requests directly to the Finance Ministry.
“The major near-term impact of the establishment of the Defense Ministry will play out in domestic Japanese politics and administrative procedures, not on the international stage at first,” Gatling said.
“Longer term, I would expect a more activist Defense Ministry stance regarding overseas deployments for disaster relief and perhaps soon, even peacekeeping operations.”
Old Habits Die Hard
Budget constraints and constitutional prohibitions place Japan’s military in an awkward position. “All appear to agree that limitations built into the system are making it difficult for Tokyo to rise to the threat challenge,” said Sato.
Some argue that reform is crucial if Japan is to handle the North Korean threat and responsibilities it has in the U.S.-Japan defense alliance.
“I don’t think anyone can see an alternative. There are simply too many expensive requirements — missile defense, U.S. base realignment, next-generation fighter, and new communication requirements — that, added up, exceed current budget levels. The inefficiencies of the current system cry out for reform,” Gatling said.
Sato called for the abolition of the cap on military spending that restricts it to 1 percent-of-gross national product, and said the North Korean tests may have removed the taboo on debating this and other issues. Pyongyang’s recent threats after the breakdown of negotiations in Beijing were just another blow.
“As always, North Korea issues hysterical statements, but the Dear Leader himself is more responsible than anyone else for facilitating the rehabilitation of Japan’s defense organization in the past decade,” said Woolley.