Written by Yu-Ping Chang

Chinese assertiveness in the Senkaku (Diaoyu Dao or Diaoyutais) disputes and the attempt to project power in the open sea beyond the first island chain with its growing naval capabilities have prompted a sense of increasing threat in Tokyo. In response, Japanese government is striving to pull the country out of economic stagnation, strengthening offshore island defense and reviewing security arrangements with the U.S. From the raise of defense budgets, plans of drones and Osprey aircrafts to thoughts on the exercise of offensive capabilities and consideration of constitutional revision, a series of measures have incurred China’s ire in that accusation of resurgent militarism lurks in the background of official statements and bears bluntness in the Op-Eds on the newspaper.

As high profile as Japan’s defense review is, domestic and international constraints do not provide enough incentives for or enable Tokyo to move toward militarism. The scale of military overhaul will be limited because of uncertain prospect of a long-term economic recovery and changed nature of security threats. Furthermore, Japan’s intention is to be checked under the alliance with Washington. In addition, militarism is an overstatement, given that Tokyo undertakes review in the context of China’s growing assertiveness. What’s achievable simply is the re-assertion of state’s autonomy.

With limited resources, Tokyo’s priority is offshore islands which were not attentively guarded until China shows assertive interests in the sea. Weapon procurement, increase of military personnel and joint programs with Washington can’t be actualized without stable financial input from long-term economic growth. To lift sluggish economy, what the government does is to increase its debts and decrease tax revenues to encourage investments in hope that investment-supported economic growth can raise salaries and generate more taxes levied on consumers to reduce its public debt. However, If fiscal measures (monetary easing and government spending as well as possible corporate tax cuts), coupled with deregulations and reform on labor market, fail to boost long-term investments, there will be more debts on the nation.

Several issues remain to be seen. Do fiscal and non-fiscal policies provide enough incentives for inbound investments? Is there a strong domestic market, considering the aging population, and foreign markets, under global economic downturn, to support consumption? If the previous two questions are yes, will economic growth finally be translated into the raise of wages to sustain the increase of consumption taxes that starts next April? These questions require long-term observation and their development might extend beyond Abe’s tenure. With plenty uncertainties, a sustainable defense budget raise that supports weapon procurement and expansion of military remains questionable.

Japanese understanding of security threats and the corresponding military preparation as well as defense strategy are realized in the concept of “dynamic deterrence.” “Dynamic deterrence” differs from conventional deterrence in terms of enemies’ objectives and means. In conventional deterrence, to achieve one’s goal, an all-out war or attack responsible for mass casualty is highly expected on the other’s main territory. Resources accumulation in large scale therefore is necessary. Dynamic deterrence, however, defines world as a place of various threats, such as maritime security, cyber-attack, and terrorism, all of which require constant attentions, swift military responses, and efficient military operations short of war. Enemies will likely use limited military activities to achieve limited goals. For example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote: “by making these boats’ presence appear ordinary, China seeks to establish its jurisdiction in the waters surrounding the islands as a fait accompli [original emphasis].” What Japan prepares for this situation are frequent military operations of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), brisk responses and readiness of force to expel and deter greater Chinese presence. Tokyo also is planning to have amphibious capabilities to recapture the islands once being occupied via a small-scale operation. To achieve deterrence and recapture when deterrence fails require increased quantity and improved quality of weapons and more training of personnel. However, because of changed nature of security threats (enemies’ means and ends), there are fewer incentives for Japan to build up military in large scale and to develop capabilities to fight an all-out war on the main territory.

Changes to the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) and the defense cooperation guideline with the U.S., both of which are currently under review, would likely to be made accordingly to the already defined principles and directions in the NDPG 2010; “Dynamic Deterrence” and asymmetrical capabilities will continue to be defense goals for a foreseeable future until the security environment, including the nature and identification of threat, is re-defined. In deliberating revisions, the 2013 White Paper continues to identify Chinese activities around offshore islands and North Korean ballistic missile as primary dangers and emphasize readiness of the force and prompt reaction to achieve deterrence. The overall direction is not altered. What can be expected are the broaden scope of means such as integration of force structure and expanded bilateral cooperation with Washington. A more active role of SDF which can defend allies and offshore islands in an armed conflict could probably also be fashioned.

On one hand, the U.S. supports Japanese administrative rights over the islands. On the other, the U.S. values relations with China. It refuses to treat China as an adversary but both a cooperator and competitor. For Washington, such identification of each other’s role can maximize the interests of both sides and other countries; a stable regional environment without intense competition will ensure economic profits on which states of dissimilar levels of power place priority. As long as Tokyo needs Washington to be its security provider and the relationship between Washington and Beijing doesn’t deteriorate, the U.S. is unlikely to tolerate Japan’s untoward intention and unwarranted military expansion under the current dynamics of U.S.-China interaction as the lower-right cell of the dyads shows. On the contrary, in the other three cells, Tokyo will have more latitude to expand and exercise its military power.

degree of perceived threat from China

U.S. Attitudes

hawkish Dovish
presence of imminentthreat
absence of imminent threat


Being militarist applies to state(s) who intend to change an existing order while others prefer status quo. Widely recognized assertion in the sea and ever-growing material power, in contrast to Japan’s aging population and dragging economy, make China, instead of Japan, the most likely candidate to be a revisionist state. Tokyo’s review of national defense occurs in the context of China’s rise, and its military overhaul so far largely is re-active. In addition, many countries do not hold views against a more militarily active Japan. France, Britain, Vietnam and Philippine, for example, have agreed on closer security cooperation with Tokyo and/or welcomed more Japanese participation in international security issues. This is not a time when Japan builds military capabilities for aggression. This is the time when it overhauls its military to consolidate country’s autonomy in face of China’s growing prowess.

Yu-Ping Chang was formerly a Research Assistant in the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica, Taiwan.


  1. The NDPG 2010 states: “Looking at trends of the global security environment, the probability of large-scale war between major countries has declined due to increasing interdependence among countries.” “A full-scale invasion against Japan that will threaten its existence, such as a large-scale landing invasion, is unlikely to occur, […].” See Japanese Ministry of Defense. National Defense Program Guidelines. (2010).

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