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Japan's growing defense role

In the early 1980s Japan is evolving a strengthening consensus in support of defense. This is the result of the steady buildup of Soviet maritime forces in the oceans adjacent to Japan, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the stationing of substantial Soviet military forces in the northern territories seized at the end of World War II and still claimed by Japan. It stems also from reductions in US maritime forces in the western Pacific to support the American buildup of naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean. Together, these factors contribute to a greater willingness in Japan to view security issues in global context.

The present Japanese self-defense program, established in 1976, is based on the assumption that in case of emergency US forces stationed in the Far East will be reinforced from the US and that Japan's principal self-defense role is to halt an enemy attack until such time as US power speedily can be projected to its aid. As Soviet capabilities have grown and the US has assumed additional security commitments, doubts in Japan both about the adequacy of existing Japanese efforts and the ability of the US to deploy reinforcements in the western Pacific have mounted. Knowledgeable Japanese analysts suggest that this gap must be narrowed by the growth of American military capabilities (the need for which is underscored by defense analysts officially and privately) and by the assumption of a somewhat greater self-defense role by Japan (acknowledged to be inevitable although deep differences exist about its timing, scope, and composition of forces).

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At the official level, Japan and the US appear already to have evolved a consensus on dangers confronting them to an extent hardly imaginable a few years ago, although Japan's domestic political consensus is not yet sufficiently strong to support what the US, and even some in Japan, would like to see Japan bear as a fair share of the security burden in the western Pacific. Japanese defense analysts often acknowledge that Japan must increase her self-defense forces to provide for a greater maritime presence in the western Pacific, together with early warning air defense capabilities and qualitative improvements in command, control, and communications and in the ground self-defense forces; and greater stockpiles of ammunition and spare parts. Not unlike the US, moreover, Japan must resolve personel recruitment and retention problems, considered to be most acute in the maritime self-defense force.

Japan does not possess an adequate legal infrastructure for self-defense forces. Several specific legal contraints on defense are discussed in Japan: difficulties in taking emergency action in a crisis because the self-defense forces cannot engage an enemy in combat unless the Prime Minister, Defense Council, Cabinet, and Diet together issue an order for such action. The postwar Constitution prohibits the use of Japanese forces outside Japan, thus making the US-Japan Security Treaty unequal in that, unlike the US in responding to a threat to Japan, Japan could not come to the aid of the US outside Japanese territory. How far, it is asked, could the prohibition be stretched to permit the assumption by Japan of a maritime role outside its immediate territorial waters? This is not considered the opportune moment to amend the postwar Constitution. The rationale for continued growth of self-defense forces would only be obscured by a debate about the postwar Constitution. Although it is asked in Japan whether the US favors revision, there is agreement that any changes should be postponed until such time as the domestic Japanese consensus has evolved toward a substantially greater and broader conception of security.

Such is the context within which the Japanese draft budget for FY (fiscal year) 1981 set defense spending at the equivalent of $11.1 billion, representing real growth of 7.6 percent, including personnel cost increases, over FY 1980. Both in 1980 and 1981, however, the previous trend toward lower real increases in defense than in governmental spending as a whole was reversed, with 6.5 percent for defense and 5.1 percent for general expenditures in 1980, and 7.6 percent for defense, contrasted with 4.3 percent in real increases for general expenditures, in 1981. Although the rates of real increase far exceed those of NATO allies (the North Atlantic Council agreed to a real increase of 3 percent per annum in 1977 and even this may be difficult for some members to meet), Japan still spends only .9 percent of its GNP for defense. With a GNP and population half the size of the US and thus about equal in per capita terms, Japan could sustain a substantially greater defense burden -- so the argument goes in the US and among those in Japan urging a greater Japanese military effort.

It is evident that defense burden sharing will constitute a principal issue, along with trade policy, in Japanese-American relations in the years just ahead. The occasion of the Visit of Prime Minister Suzuki to Washington on May 7 and 8 will provide an opportunity for the Reagan administration to set forth its conception of security, and of relations between Tokyo and Washington. Much remains to be done. The US can make clear that it regards Japan's existing levels of defense spending to be inadequate in light of the emerging international security environment. The administration can cite the example of its own substantial defense increases in support of the proposition that Japan should contribute more to maritime security in the western Pacific as the US commits forces to the Indian Ocean, where Japanese interests are at least as great as those of the US. The US can point to the need for Japan to regard itself on an equal standing with NATO.

There is an understandable Japanese preference to speak of a conception of comprehensive security in which Japan would contribute economically to strategically important countries, especially in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. What will be needed is a conception of comprehensive security in which Japan can play a somewhat greater maritime defense role in the western Pacific and an increased economic role outside the region.

As in the case of alliance relations elsewhere, this will call for a sophisicated combination of American leadership and consultation, together with a joint assessment of the global and regional security environment on a continuing basis, leading to an appropriate division of labor based on more adequate force levels both on the par t of Japan and the US.