Japan’s 2017 defense White Paper is 2016 all over again

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Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces' infantry unit stand to attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka, Japan. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan’s newly released defense White Paper still hasn’t appeared in English — leaving non-Japanese speaking analysts and reporters wondering or seeking unofficial translations.

Still, if they read the English version of the 2016 Defense White Paper they’ll pretty much know what’s in the latest version. The changes are best described as miniscule, not incremental.

Chief among them: declaring that North Korea is an even more serious threat than last year when it was already deemed a serious threat. And explaining that Chinese incursions are increasing to worrisome levels from the worrisome levels noted in last year’s White Paper.

The White Paper, like its predecessors is detailed and informative – at over 500 pages – and lays out Japan’s view of the regional and global security situation, Japan’s defense activities, and the state of the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF).

But all this detail is deceptive. One only needs to read a few pages covering defense spending to recognize the continuing lethargy in Japanese defense thinking — despite the Chinese and North Koreans breathing down Japan’s neck.

While correctly stating the problem, the government still refuses to spend what’s necessary.

While correctly stating the problem, the government still refuses to spend what’s necessary.

To the Japan Ministry of Defense’s credit, it doesn’t hide the fact that token increases during the Abe administration follow a decade of annual decreases in defense spending.

If the increases continue, spending might one day be about where it was circa 2006, or when compared to today, the Chinese and North Korean threats were enough to make one nostalgic.

If Japan is determined not to spend what it should to defend itself, it can at least get more out of what it already has.

This can easily be done by developing the ability of Japan’s Air, Maritime, and Ground Self Defense Forces to operate together — otherwise, known as conducting joint operations. They currently cannot beyond the most rudimentary level.

Unfortunately, the White Paper provides no concrete details for how this problem will be overcome, such as the creation of a Joint Operational Headquarters or a Joint Task Force responsible for defending Japan’s vulnerable southern islands.

Even buying radios with which the three Japanese services can talk to each other would be a start.

The US figures in the White Paper, not surprisingly, and there’s talk of the Japanese building closer relations to the American forces.

But as with the JSDF services’ inability to operate together, there’s no sign of anything concrete towards a much-improved operational tie-up with the Americans.

The 2015 US-Japan Defense Guidelines revision called for an Alliance Coordination Mechanism, which one might think was an actual place where Americans and Japanese were working together. There appears to be no mention of such a place in the White Paper.

And perhaps stung by Mr. Trump’s earlier criticism that Japan doesn’t pay or do enough in return for US defense coverage, the White Paper explains that the Americans also benefit from their bases in Japan allowing them to operate elsewhere in the region and beyond.

True enough, but it’s hard to think of a single operation by US forces based in Japan that does not benefit Japan, given that Japan-based US military operations are all part of maintaining regional stability, from which Japan richly benefits.

The White Paper indicates Japan is continuing the tradition of buying or building military hardware in too small numbers and without a coherent, comprehensive defense procurement strategy.

The White Paper indicates Japan is continuing the tradition of buying or building military hardware in too small numbers and without a coherent, comprehensive defense procurement strategy.

And since bureaucrats write much of the White Paper, the need to overcome bureaucratic roadblocks hindering Japanese companies trying to get into the international defense market goes unmentioned.

One wishes the White Paper would describe Japan’s plans to buy war stocks (extra hardware and ordnance). Nice to have once everything in the arsenal has been shot off.

For example, perhaps buy some additional Patriot missiles — as opposed to the launchers — or more AMRAAM’s (air-to air missiles) for Japan’s F-15’s.

But instead of laying in extras beforehand, Japan appears to be counting on the Americans resupplying them when the time comes – and while under fire.

Reading about China’s military buildup can leave a sense of awe on the scale of it. But plowing through Japan’s Defense White Papers (Japanese or English versions) leaves a sense of “that’s all?”

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japanese Forum for Strategic Studies

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