Just Where Did We Think Japan Was Going…in 2003?

by admin on December 3, 2013


I am fascinated by our Capital’s crop of public national security prognosticators.  As these good folks race to produce more “guidance” on how American security should evolve, too few of us take the time to review and evaluate their prior work.

That must change.

So….Given the rapidly-changing nature of the Pacific, I thought it might be neat to revisit Brooking’s military analyst Michael O’Hanlon’s vision of the Japanese military from his 2003 booklet “Expanding Global Military Capacity for Humanitarian Intervention.” Here’s his description of Japan’s long-term national security future:

More than half a century after World War II and more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Japan can and should do more in the international security sphere. It need not and should not mimic the United States, or even Great Britain. Unilateral power projection capabilities would unsettle some neighbors and displease many Japanese themselves. Nor need it even increase defense spending very much. Nevertheless, Japan should reexamine the basic way in which it structures and equips its military, a view which Japan’s leader, Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, has agreed.  It should also regain the momentum it began to establish in the 1990s–when it sent about seven hundred personnel to Cambodia in 1992-1993 for peacekeeping and then four hundred to Zaire in 1994 for humanitarian relief after the Rwanda genocide–but has since largely lost, despite its deployment of support vessels and aircraft to the Indian Ocean to support the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

In other Asian countries,  many would oppose such a Japanese security policy out of fear of latent Japanese militarism.  Within Japan, that worry exists too. But the alternative force structure outlined below would involve too few troops to threaten countries such as China, Korea, the Philippines or Vietnam.  Yet the new capabilities would be quite substantial when measured against the demands of global humanitarian, peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations.

Japan has many options besides becoming a “normal” power or remaining a civilian, largely pacifist power.  A number of Japanese politicians, notably Ichiro Ozawa, have suggested what might happen.  The basic idea would be to expand the country’s physical capabilities for operations abroad, but keep legal, diplomatic and military checks on those new capabilities so as to reassure Japan’s neighbors and the Japanese people about the nature of the effort. The goal would be to expressly not be for Japan to become an independent, global military power.  Under such a framework, Japan would consider projecting power only within the context of multilateral security missions, preferably, if not exclusively, those approved by the UN Security Council. It would not develop the physical capability to do more than that…

Amazing.  Not to single Michael O’Hanlon out, but virtually all of Washington’s navel gazers got this totally wrong. Today, Asia is far more concerned about the resurgence of Chinese militarism. And a lot of people in the region are cheering as Japan hurdles down the path towards becoming a “normal” power–an independent and global one, no less.

And I think that, by the early 2003’s it was pretty clear that Japan was headed in the direction of becoming a regional counterweight (if a relatively constrained one) to the Chinese.

But here’s my question.  Did anybody get it right?


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Don Bacon December 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Is there any country in Asia where Japan militarism is liked? No. Particularly in China there is a visceral hatred of Japan’s military, for good reason. Young Chinese are brought up to hate Japan based on what Japan has done in China.

Of course China’s emergence is not always popular with others, change never is, but it doesn’t compare with hatred of Japan based on historical record. In Asia, the US is Japan’s ally, that’s about it. Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea — all don’t like Japan.

The current flap over the Senkakus involved Japan’s PM Abe upsetting the status quo and taking control of a disputed area, supported by the US. Japan also has disputes with Korea and Russia over other islands, and we can expect Abe to further involve the US.


admin December 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Love the commentary ya’ll. Great discussion.

If I had time, I’d have pulled out some of the fun 1980/90’s-era books about the coming Japanese invasion, but they’re buried in the library! That would have been a perfect example of a national security commentator getting it totally and gloriously wrong!

General point here is that even the guys who largely got it “right”–and likely understood the region quite well–missed the general developmental thrust–and sea change–in Asia’s demeanor/feelings toward Japan (those with territorial disputes excepted, of course!) today.

I am interested in why we missed it.

Yes, regional concerns about Japanese militarism are there, but those concerns are not strong enough to rally the “minor” countries (Philippines, Vietnam, etc.) against Japan or to start viewing China as a bulwark against a resurgent Japan.

I suspect we may have–at least in the countries that don’t have territorial disputes with Japan–passed a regional tipping point.

Regarding O’Hanlon’s vision: Interestingly, O’Hanlon’s vision was for Japan to support humanitarian initatives by adding to their logistical support fleets (both air and sea lift)–by about ten big Ro-Ros. In that, he was correct. Japan (post tsunami) recognizes their logistical shortcomings, and may, in time, fix it, but my sense is that Japan will be bulking up their hi-end combatants and patrol fleet first, before building support fleets. Their apatite for Aegis is strong, but we’ll see where the demands of active/dynamic defense doctrine takes them…So O’Hanlon is correct in identifying a capability gap, but it likely won’t be humanitarian/multilateral interest that induces Japan to fill it. Instead, that logistical shortfall may well be filled because Japan feels threatened enough to demand sufficient logistical support to respond to a potential attack.


Daniel December 3, 2013 at 11:48 am

From all the predictions that you could have singled out, that seems to be a quite reasonable one as a matter of fact. In 2013, a similar commentary would undoubtedly mention China a lot more of course. But while Asia is very concerned about Chinese militarism, you only have to read the South Korean newspapers to see how Japanese potential militarism is viewed (rightly or wrongly). Reading the national sources, in South Korea and other Asian countries might be a good way to see how there is still some significant ambivalence towards a more military robust Japan. Additionally, the pacifist trend in Japan still exists in a significant part of its population.
Just to be clear, I don’t disagree with what you are saying, and with the fact that in 2003 Japan was heading in the direction you mention, I agree that the question posed now is more about being what type of “normal” power it wants to be, pacifism has certainly been discarded for the foreseeable future.
But what he is mentioning, the worry in many asian countries of Japanese militarism, still exists today. Maybe the problem is that it isn’t mentioned nearly as much by today’s naval gazers. Then again, seldom can they read the languages of the countries we are talking about, so it wouldn’t be surprising.


MattC December 3, 2013 at 11:18 am

Whoops, last line is extraneous was supposed to be deleted, but I am too dumb too edit correctly, so God only knows what that means for the rest of my commentary. Maybe I can get a job with O’Hanlon.


MattC December 3, 2013 at 11:17 am

Hang on – I may be blind and dumb, but I am missing the “future vision” O’Hanlon lays out here (and I am no fan of O’Hanlon).

The Self-Defense Forces are more capable than the very brief description laid out here, but a lot of that is largely because of their focus: Self-defense in a high-intensity conflict. So O’Hanlon missed the effect that a rise in Chinese capability and aggression would have on the JSDF, but I think overall his (again, to the extent it even exists) description of how Japanese military capabilities could/should evolve is not entirely off the mark.

Put another way, the capabilities have evolved roughly along the lines mentioned here (really by Ozawa, not O’Hanlon) – IF they were in the context of global stability and multinational operations that framed the 2003 discussion. BMD capabilities, helo carriers, a desired/nascent expeditionary capability, etc. But instead of viewing that in the context of contributing to peacekeeping and stability ops, we’re viewing it in the context of defense of Japan and disputed territories from advanced Chinese capabilities. That’s the difference, and I don’t think the “prediction” here is as bad as you make it sound.

Or am I missing something completely? Maybe the full “vision” outside of these three paragraphs? I don’t know.

Moreover, Japan’s military capabilities over the last ten years have evolved in a not-entirely-dissimilar manner from the one laid out there (power projection in context of multilateralism).


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