Japan Ready to Declare: We’ll Go First

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Japan Maritime Self Defense Force sailors during a recent ceremony at sea.

TOKYOJapan has no intention to go it alone in defending its territory or national interests from growing threats in the Asia-Pacific region. But an annual defense review released Tuesday and other recent developments signal an increasing willingness on the part of Japan to go it alone, first.

Japan plans to establish a new National Security Council that would streamline how and when Tokyo would use military force, appoint a senior officer to command troops from all three armed services, and formally designate a Marine Corps-like force to defend its vulnerable southwest islands.

The United States remains Japan’s essential security partner, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to strengthen the U.S.-Japan defense alliance. But the new plans would allow Japan to respond to threats against its own territory without turning first to its long-time protector.

The annual Defense White Paper issued by the Ministry of Defense concludes that Japan faces “increasingly tangible, acute and serious” threats from its neighbors – meaning, China mostly — and must improve its ability to respond militarily, should that be necessary.

“The reality of the current international community suggests that it is not necessarily possible to prevent invasions from the outside by only nonmilitary means such as diplomatic efforts, and in the event that the nation were to be invaded it would not be able to remove such a threat…. For this reason, Japan is striving to develop proper defense capabilities to protect the lives and assets of the public and to defend the territorial land, sea and airspace of Japan,” the report says.

The most direct threat has been in the East China Sea, where Beijing has been aggressively pressing claims to the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu. Chinese government patrol ships have intruded into Japanese-administered territorial waters around those islands nearly 50 times since September. On two occasions, PLA Navy frigates locked targeting radar onto Japanese warships and aircraft in international waters nearby.

In the air, Japanese fighter planes intercepted Chinese military aircraft near Japan’s airspace more than 300 times last year — 10 times as many as just five years earlier.

Under the U.S.-Japan treaty, the United States is obliged to aid Japan if its territory comes under attack, though the exact circumstances are not spelled out. Abe said earlier this year that Japan would take the lead in any conflict involving the Senkaku Islands, but given Japan’s current capabilities, U.S. forces almost certainly would have to assist.

The Senkaku crisis, which reached a boil when then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda brought several of the privately-owned islands under national control in September 2012, has exposed a cumbersome decision-making process at top government levels. The existing Security Council of Japan includes ministers from nine agencies, including the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. All have a hand in setting defense policy and, nominally at least, all must be consulted before military action is authorized.

The new National Security Council, proposed by Abe earlier this year and fleshed out in the new Defense White Paper, would pare the group down to just the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary, who functions as something akin to the prime minister’s principal advisor, chief of staff and spokesman. The four-member council would be led by a new national security advisor who would operate with a full-time staff. A bill before the Diet seems likely to be approved later this year.

Defense officials also are expected to announce this month the creation of a new post of joint forces commander. He — or she — would have authority over troops from all three self-defense forces during contingency operations. A key lesson from the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – for which the Self Defense Forces received generally high praise – was that coordination was lacking between the ground, air and maritime services. The new joint commander would have authority to make cross-service decisions in the field, rather than pass them up to the Joint Staff Office in Tokyo, a lengthy and clumsy process.

Abe also has ordered a revision of the current National Defense Program Guidelines, which set policy and spending goals over a five-year period. The new plan is expected, among other things, to designate and equip the Kyushu-based Western Army for amphibious warfare operations. Japan has hundreds of small islands scattered through its southwest chain, but little capability as yet to defend them.

Troops from the Western Army have been conducting small-scale training with U.S. Marines since the mid-2000s and last month completed a major amphibious warfare exercise with the Marines in Southern California. For the first time, they were joined by warships from the Maritime Self Defense Forces and brought along their own helicopters and landing craft.  And in at least one training mission with the Marines, the Japanese troops went ashore…first.