The Wary Warriors

Future Directions in Japanese Security Policies

by Norman D. Levin, Mark A. Lorell, Arthur J. Alexander

Research Brief

The end of the Cold War has had an enormous effect on many countries and regions, and Asia is no exception. The dramatic international changes and growing Asian doubts about the long-term U.S. presence have heightened uncertainties throughout the region. With growing tensions in U.S.-Japan economic relations, Japan's increasing economic and technological capabilities, and changing attitudes within Japan itself, these developments have spawned concern in both Asia and the United States that Japan will inevitably move toward major rearmament and an independent military posture.

Recent Project AIR FORCE research examined trends in Japanese security policy, Japanese perspectives on regional and global developments, and Japan's Self Defense Force (SDF). It also analyzed Japanese defense resource and procurement trends to assess how their technological developments and industrial policy decisions are likely to affect their future military capabilities. This research, reported in The Wary Warriors: Future Directions in Japanese Security Policies, by Norman D. Levin, Mark Lorell, and Arthur Alexander, concludes that such concerns are exaggerated. In all likelihood, Japan will continue close security ties with the United States, but that relationship will undergo greater strains than in the past. The study concludes that the United States will have to give its relationship with Japan much higher priority to ensure continued close cooperation.

Major Japanese Military Expansion Unlikely

The research suggests that those who fear a resurgent Japanese military fail to give sufficient weight to fundamental constraints that, for the remainder of the decade, make such a course of action unlikely. First, domestic political, economic, and social forces impede a radical expansion of Japanese military capabilities. Any such expansion would be enormously expensive, particularly at a time when the Japanese economy is slowing down, and it would require a political consensus difficult for Japan's increasingly fragmented government to establish. It also would provoke strong negative reactions from Japan's public and neighbors.

Second, the prospective force structure of the SDF would probably not be able to support independent military operations. The SDF suffers from serious equipment, doctrinal, and logistical weaknesses that will take years to correct. It is uniquely defensive, moreover, and lacks both sufficient weapons and power projection forces. The ability to integrate operations across the three services remains a further weakness.

Finally, the Japanese defense industry has a number of technical limitations that will make it difficult to underwrite a major force expansion. It is particularly deficient in its ability to produce more advanced military systems and in systems integration. Japan can surely develop such capabilities over time, but not soon and not without a major investment.

The most likely security path for Japan over the next several years will be a continuation of its general direction: a defensive posture in close coordination with the United States. That policy has been exceptionally successful. Japan has developed a substantial military capability that ensures its defense against most adversaries and yet does not threaten its neighbors. It has done so without incurring a major economic burden while retaining U.S. involvement. This path also aligns with Japan's fundamental conservatism. Faced with an unsettled and changing environment and mounting domestic difficulties, Japan will tend toward caution and away from bold new directions.

Future U.S.-Japan Relations: A Troubled Partnership

Although Japan will continue to pursue a close security relationship with the United States, the relationship will face a much rockier road. The demise of the Soviet Union has loosened some of the glue cementing the bilateral relationship. Simultaneously, public opinion in the United States is less tolerant of absorbing the defense burden of other countries, particularly those viewed as economically strong. For their part, the Japanese are weary of being blamed for America's economic woes. Furthermore, they will insist on being treated as an equal partner. Unilateral decisions affecting Japanese interests such as occurred during the Persian Gulf War—demands for Japanese financial contributions without prior consultation—will meet increasing resentment. Rising bilateral economic tensions more broadly will be increasingly difficult to confine to the economic relationship.

Policymakers can anticipate increasing Japanese desires to phase out problem activities such as night landings and target practice. Maneuvers that emphasize offensive rather than defensive operations will become increasingly vulnerable politically. If economic tensions get out of hand or if the more disturbing political and attitudinal trends in the United States and Japan become dominant, a gap could develop between military-to-military ties and the broader U.S.-Japan relations. At worst, the bilateral relationship could rupture.

Although a continuation of Japan's general policy orientation is the most likely future direction, the ground is shifting. The post-Cold War world will clearly not be simply the Cold War world with minor modifications. Among a number of alternatives, the study identifies three as most likely.

The first would be for a new global partnership with the United States, in which Japan, as an equal partner, assumes part of the burden for maintaining regional and international security. This alternative would include greater Japanese participation in international peacekeeping efforts.

The end of the Cold War and declining tensions throughout Asia and the Pacific could foster pursuit of another alternative labeled détente defense. Under such a policy, Japan would maintain its basic security framework but with a diminished defense buildup and renewed emphasis on "defensive defense," that is, a military oriented exclusively toward homeland defense.

Perception of a threatening external environment and heightened doubts about the U.S. security commitment would most likely drive Japan toward a third direction: autonomous defense. This alternative would require a new political consensus in Japan to support expanded defense efforts and expenditures. Under this policy, Japan would maintain the U.S.-Japan security arrangements but would seek the capability to defend itself against any conventional attack and to protect its sea lines of communication.

Implications for U.S. Policy

The study findings have a number of implications for the Air Force and, more broadly, U.S. policy. First, the findings call into question key regional defense planning assumptions. In three of the four most likely directions, Japan will probably lack the capabilities needed to achieve its goals of extended air- and sea-lane defense. Second, although admittedly difficult, both countries need to work toward a meaningful exchange of technology. Third, the United States will have to pay more than routine attention to its relations with Japan to keep them going through the end of the decade. Increasing doubts in both countries about the continued value of close cooperation will require time and effort to dispel. However, such an effort will be critical if the United States is to draw Japan into a larger cooperative relationship.

Most important, the United States must remember its own importance to the U.S.-Japan relationship. Although Japan's future direction will be the product of many influences, U.S. policies and the state of U.S.-Japanese relations are likely to constitute the most important determinant. As the United States plans its response to the emerging world order, it needs to keep this importance firmly in mind.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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