Japan May Become Both More Independent and More Allied With the U.S.

There are signs of a growing debate between Japanese politicians over the future of its weapons export ban. Last month, newly appointed Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara intimated that revisions to the export ban would be necessary in order to bolster its military in the face of a challenging security environment. Some have pointed to the economic growth such a move would engender; particularly as increasing exports is seen as fundamental to Japan’s recovery. Furthermore, engaging in joint weapons projects could allow for serious savings by reducing Japan’s reliance on imported military equipment. However, others, including Prime Minister Kan, view the ban as a core principle of Japanese pacifist defense policy and are sure to oppose revision.

The outcome of this debate will shape the future evolution of Japanese defense policy. The attempt to revise the weapons export ban is part of a dual-hedge strategy of Japan’s defense policy and its alliance with the United States. Such a strategy aims to achieve two goals.

First, Japan would grow its own indigenous capabilities, enabling it to pursue more unilateral action, less encumbered by American influence. This will allow it a modicum of independence that many Japanese see as necessary to both avoid costly entanglement within the U.S. alliance and permit Japan to exercise a foreign policy commensurate with Japan’s status as a great power.

Second, although this strategy will allow Japan the option of exercising a greater amount of independence, it will also enable Japan to tighten the alliance with the United States. This will be achieved by greater engagement in joint weapons development as well as by acquiescing to Washington’s demands that Japan take a more equal share of alliance burdens. Furthermore, revision will allow Japan another avenue to further engage other regional allies such as South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia. Japanese proponents also point to the savings joint weapons development would bring, particularly by reducing Japan’s reliance on costly arms imports.

Finally, in light of recent regional security developments, primarily China’s increasingly assertive attitude and growing concern over North Korean instability, some Japanese politicians are advocating a more muscular approach to regional diplomacy. Although Japan already maintains robust military capabilities, some fear falling behind China in the strategic balance.

The United States has recently increased its demands that Japan take on a greater share of alliance burdens to allow for a drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. This reflects a growing realization that in light of current circumstances, primarily budgetary constraints coupled with domestic Japanese hostility toward the extensive U.S. presence, that the existing posture is unsustainable.

This realization leaves Japan between a rock and a hard place. The regional environment facing Japan remains uncertain, with China flexing its muscles and North Korea a wild card. U.S. force reduction creates an operational gap, which must either be filled by the Japanese or tolerated. Given the current climate, it seems unlikely that the Japanese will allow such a gap to exist and therefore, will improve indigenous capabilities.

However, there is concern that revision of the export ban would further stoke fears in China. When Beijing surveys the map, it sees an alarming trend of militarizing neighbors, aligned with the United States, encircling China. A classic security dilemma could result in a regional arms race as China, Japan, as well as North and South Korea attempt to balance against what each perceives is a threatening regional environment.

It will be interesting to see how this debate develops. The shifting security environment as well as internal pressures may lead the Japanese government to rethink its position on the export ban and compromise by reverting back to the original 1967 structure. However, the weapons export ban has been a core element of Japanese defense policy for the past four decades, and it will be difficult, though not impossible, for revisionists to convince many of their colleagues, as well as the Japanese public, that change is warranted.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.