The new defense plan announced today provides a fresh glimpse into how Japan will adjust to changes afoot in Northeast Asia. Coming on the heels of a run-in with China in its southwestern waters, and growing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) reflects a new appreciation for the need of Japan's Self Defense Force (SDF) to respond to threats quickly and effectively. With crises erupting around Japan, planners are increasingly more aware that their crisis management decision-making may not be up to the task of contending with a more provocative North Korea or a more assertive China.
The ten-year defense plan clearly suggests Japan's SDF needs to be more alert to the possibility of having to contend with a rising China. The plan moves more military assets closer to the maritime region where Japanese and Chinese interests collide. A squadron of F-15s, and an army signals unit, will move to Okinawa. Cybersecurity has moved up the priority list, and an additional five Japanese submarines will operate off its coastal waters.
This plan reflects the same basic worries about North Korea and China as its 2004 predecessor. Ballistic missile defenses, a capability that Japan has acquired, were seen as necessary to contend with the growing missile threat emanating from North Korea. An SDF capability to defend offshore islands and Japan's airspace was a high priority, and is again this year.
But Japan is abandoning the static concept that motivated its past defense procurement. Gone is the old idea that Japan should simply maintain a basic defense posture that could be ramped up if and when a threat should appear. This defense plan introduces a new goal--"dynamic defense."
The idea here is flexibility in coping with whatever confronts Japan, and in today's Northeast Asia that goal seems long overdue. U.S. defense planners will want to work more closely with Japan on shared strategic assessments of the region, as well as a more calibrated articulation of what roles and missions on which the two allied militaries ought to work.
Washington will also press Japan harder for greater participation in research and development of next-generation weapons systems. The NDPG hints that Tokyo is ready for that conversation and is willing to consider a relaxation of Japan's ban on military exports in order to join collaborative development efforts with the United States and NATO.
Currently, the ban on military-related technologies limits jointly developed systems from being purchased by NATO and other allies. Moreover, Japanese participation on the development of the F-35, the next generation fighter aircraft, may depend on their ability to relax this policy.
This defense plan introduces no new purchases of major weapons systems, and rather modest changes in Japan's overall capabilities. But the focus on organizing existing capabilities for a more flexible and rapid response should not be missed by either Pyongyang or Beijing.