Between the Senkakus and a Hard Place

by Leonard Kosinki

In September 2010, Japan was forced to unconditionally return the captain of a Chinese trawler that collided with two of Japan’s Coast Guard ships near the disputed and uninhabited Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.  Despite Japan’s initial efforts to resolve the issue through the legal process, China unleashed a salvo of aggressive economic and nationalistic tactics.  Unresolved territorial disputes are among the key issues — along with China’s continued military growth, a resurgent Russia and a provocative North Korea — that create a balance of power that is not necessarily in Japan’s interest.

Over the last two decades, regional threats to Japan have increased while Japan’s economy, and consequently its defense budget (held to less than 1% of GDP), has declined.  According to Japan’s 2010 defense white paper, China’s defense budget has increased by 368% over the last ten years, while Japan’s defense budget, constrained by a public debt twice its GDP, has fallen by 5%.  In light of these challenges, the US-Japan Alliance remains as critical an anchor for security in Pacific Asia as ever before.  However, the cloud of the declining powers settling over both the US and Japan obscures the strategic path ahead.  To move forward, what is necessary is a strengthening of the Alliance and a renewal of its objectives, with particular emphasis on Japan’s contribution for regional and global security.

Need for Airpower, not a Wallflower

Hot scrambles by Japan’s fighter jets to intercept incursions into Japanese airspace—mainly from the Chinese and Russian militaries expanding their reach—more than doubled in the last ten years.[i] The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) prides itself on the ability to intercept these territorial incursions. However, an aging fighter fleet of Vietnam War- era F-4s, the periodic grounding of F-15s, and most recently the loss of many modern F-2 aircraft from the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) have hindered JASDF pilots. Adding to the malaise are the ongoing bureaucratic delays in decision-making to procure a replacement for the next generation of fighter jets.  Japan has currently narrowed its choices down to three aircraft—Boeing F/A-18E/F Block II Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed Martin F-35A.  But the government’s lackluster effort to select a replacement is more than a decade overdue and a procurement decision must be made soon.

Not to be a Wallflower anymore?

Well known for its financial contributions to international security over the last few decades, Japan has shown a slow but steady trend of increasing deployments and engagement. Starting with peacekeeping operations (PKO) in Cambodia in 1992, the Government of Japan has cautiously dispatched Self-Defense Force (SDF) troops to other locations such as Rwanda, the Golan Heights, and even Iraq.  The newly elected Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, is now considering sending troops for the UN PKO mission in South Sudan.  Along with these seminal dispatches of SDF personnel, there are improvements in capabilities to extend supply lines and support operations abroad.  These are the same capabilities needed for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.  Such training and experience has likely paid dividends during the recovery efforts of the GEJE where Japan underwent the largest mobilization of Japanese troops since World War II.

The Hard Place – and the Way Ahead

Japan is facing economic, environmental and security challenges on a scale that arguably has not been witnessed since World War II.  An aging society with increasing debt and domestic political turmoil further exacerbates Japan’s woes.  Domestically, the brave rescue and recovery efforts after the GEJE have dramatically elevated the image of the SDF in Japan.  As the SDF gains more public support, political support for increasing the defense budget (via relaxation of the self-imposed 1% restriction) may also gain favor over budget slashing.

Dealing with reduced defense budgets in the face of increasing threats requires innovative thinking in the US-Japan Alliance.  To sustain security for the region, focus must return to critical but often overlooked elements of the US-Japan defense policy realignment talks involving the sharing of roles, missions and capabilities.  Efforts in areas such as cooperative procurement and integration of operations can ensure capability gaps are filled to optimize both nations’ defense budgets by avoiding costly redundancies in procurement and organizational structures.

Japan has an extremely professional and capable Self-Defense Force that has served proudly in the aftermath of domestic disasters.  Despite current and future challenges, as a regional and global power, Japan can and should do more to contribute to security and stability operations throughout the world.  Japan has tough choices to make.  In security, answers lie in the effective use of the SDF and in further integration in the US-Japan Alliance.


[i]Japan Self-Defense Force Joint Staff Office, “年度緊急発進回数の推,” [Trend in Annual Fighter Jet Scrambles] Japan Joint StaffOffice, (accessed November 1, 2011).

About the Author

Leonard Kosinski is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His dissertation focuses on international security and multinational military organizations.

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