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Japanese Defense

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There’s a good article in the NYT today about Japan’s increasingly aggressive defense posture. In addition to slight increases in defense spending, the deployment of assets farther away from Japan, and the purchase of new weapon systems, the Japanese Self-Defense Force is carrying out more aggressive and realistic training exercises.

For a few reasons, this doesn’t bother me a bit. First, the dichotomy between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons is and always has been nonsense. Almost any weapon (including a wall, or even a missile defense system) can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes. The inter-war arms agreement negotiators tried to ban offensive weapons, but failed to come to any plausible determination of what constituted offensive and defensive. Political scientists have played around with the “offense-defense balance” concept for years, with few sound results. The idea, therefore, of a military organization built around “defensive” weaponry suffers from some serious conceptual problems.

In the specific case of Japan these problems are exacerbated by Japanese dependence on foreign trade. While Japan remains under the US security umbrella, it doesn’t need to worry too much about attacks on its supply lines. If that umbrella ever weakened, or if Japan wished to contribute more, defense would necessarily include deployments well outside Japanese waters. Similarly, an attack on Chinese, US, Korean, or Russian missile or air bases capable of striking Japan could plausibly be defined as “defensive”. Long story short, the idea of a “defensive” Japanese military makes no sense whatsoever outside the context of American military hegemony. As long as the US conducts all of the distant operations for Japanese defense, we can pretend that Japan has a Self-Defense Force instead of a military, but that designation amounts to little more than a charade.

Of course, all things military are also political, and Japanese defense re-organization (Japan is already heavily armed, so re-armament doesn’t make any sense) has political effects at home and in the region. Rightist politicians have long argued for a more substantive military profile, but such arguments don’t weaken the case itself. China and the Koreas have expressed a lot of concern about Japanese revanchism, and could meet a more aggressive Japanese military posture with additional spending of their own. Since China is already increasing its defense spending (and orienting that spending around Taiwan, rather than Japan), and North Korea is pretty much tapped out, this puts South Korea on the spot. Call me a sap, but if Japan and South Korea go to war again in my lifetime, I’ll buy every reader of TAPPED and LGM a Coke. Nationalist politicians in China, South Korea, and Japan have become remarkably adept at playing off one another for domestic political gain over the past twenty years or so; re-organizing or re-titling the Self-Defense Force isn’t going to change that, or even affect the dynamic very much.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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