About Matt Scroggs

I'm a graduate student in the Politics - Foreign Affairs program, at the University of Virginia. I will be writing on Asian politics, especially security studies, as well as general IR topics and European Union politics.

An Offensive Shift? Don’t Overestimate Japan’s New Guidelines

Since the implementation of the U.S.-written Constitution, Article IX has imposed a self-defense requirement on Japan’s armed forces. While this constraint has been relaxed to some extent over time (which has led to debates and near crises at times), the fundamental principle of self-defense as the mainstay of Japanese military policy has remained fairly constant. But Japan’s government has recently announced a change to their military policy, one that represents an important but tempered shift.

The exact terms of this shift are still in flux, but the basics of it are simple: where Japan’s military was previously only allowed to respond, measure for measure, to the offensive actions of another state, new guidelines currently being compiled will allow Japan to expand the scope of operations in order to proactively defend itself, as Kirk Spitzer writes here. This means that Japan now has the capability to escalate conflict in a way that was not previously available, though it is still incapable of directly starting it (though indirect action, through movements toward the Dokdo/Takeshima or Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for example, remain a viable possibility). If Japan is attacked, rather than simply counterattacking the forces that initiated the conflict, Japanese forces will be able to expand the scope of the conflict, striking missile bases, ports, or other viable military targets.

While not going so far as to represent a full-on preemptive capability (which appears as if it would still be restricted under these revisions to military guidelines), this does open up a new range of options for the Japanese Self-Defense Force should they find themselves under attack. But it is important to not overstate the importance of these changes, as I am concerned that Spitzer does in his article. Whereas his own language states that this change will “allow Japan’s armed forces, for the first time, to develop offensive capability, and to strike first if an attack appears imminent…,” he quotes Narushige Michishita: “What they are basically saying is, ‘When a potential enemy has started attacking us, then we would start offensive operations to take out their missiles, as well as their missile bases.” There is an important and wide gulf between these two positions. For the time being at least, Japan still finds itself constitutionally constrained in a very significant way, one that removes a potentially enormous strategic advantage, in the form of preemptive strikes, that could be very useful should Japanese relations with China or either of the Koreas actually come to blows.

There is an important trade-off here that should be considered: while Japan is unable to preemptively strike a clear and present threat, by not enabling the Japanese military to attack first also creates an important degree of certainty for those that find themselves in a potential conflict with Japan, knowing that since Japan will not escalate it would fall to the other state to do so. In theory, this should stabilize relations and help prevent tensions from boiling over, a valuable factor that should not be overlooked. At the same time, however, if another state cares enough about whatever is at stake (such as the aforementioned islands), then this one-sided restraint will not be enough to prevent a high-intensity conflict or war.

Admittedly, at the end of the day, Japan’s Article IX is only as good as the paper it’s written on. Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has certainly shown an interest in undercutting, if not eliminating, the constitutional constraint, and this is a step in that direction. But for the time being this action should not have the effect of any significant destabilization of Japanese relations with other states, and only time will tell if the LDP continues in this direction and whether further changes would lead to a deterioration of peace in Northeast Asia.

Island Fever: Understanding the Recent Tension in East Asia

Recently, tensions between countries over numerous islands throughout East Asia have been rising. Of particular note are the heated disputes between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands and between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. At its core, as the New York Times notes (see two links above), the timing of these clashes can be traced back primarily to domestic politics, specifically upcoming elections or significant leadership transitions.

Dokdo/Takeshima islands (Source: NY Times).

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute has its roots back in the post-World War II settlement and the maritime boundary that the U.S. established between Korean and Japanese claims. On one hand, South Korea (and, in fact, North Korea as well) argue that the islands have historically belonged to them and that the omission of any mention of the islands in the Treaty of San Francisco was made in error. Japan, on the other hand, points to the islands that they explicitly lost control over in the treaty–and to the fact that this particular set of islands was not included–as evidence that they should retain control.

The increased tension appears to be an attempt by Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, to solidify his credentials among the nationalists, especially after the nearly solidified South Korean-Japanese security agreement was put on hold. As I have noted on this blog, opposition leaders used that as an opportunity to paint Mr. Lee as “pro-Japanese,” a particularly damning term for a Korean politician, laden with lots of historical baggage. Thus, it only makes sense that Mr. Lee would use this as an opportunity to counter critiques being leveled by other South Korean political leaders.

This is not to say that there isn’t a national security argument to be made here. In fact, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has framed it in just those terms. But while this may be a possibility, from a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t seem particularly credible given the relative lack of value of the islands militarily. Namely, the islands are too small and difficult to employ as, say, a base or garrison (though, interestingly, Kimie Hara argues that the U.S. viewed the islands as having strategic value, which is why they were kept under Japanese control, in case South Korea fell to the communists). A resources argument seems more credible but still unsatisfactory. The islands provide valuable fishing rights as well as oil and gas reserves, which, in turn, provide each side an incentive to maintain control over the islands. However, the presence of resources cannot explain why we are seeing tensions rising now, since there have been no new discoveries of resources or new pressures for access to those resources.

One of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (Source: NY Times).

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute goes back even further; to perhaps the Meiji era, when Japan established control over Okinawa and its leaders debated over whether further expansion into disputed islands should occur. Following the first Sino-Japanese war, the Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede control over these islands to Japan. However, the Treaty of San Francisco again left the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in an unclear position, with Japan, the PRC and the ROC all laying claim.

Both Japan and China are facing impeding changes to their domestic politics. From this alone, we should expect to find that both Japan and China would be stepping up nationalist rhetoric in order to strengthen their positions domestically. But beyond the incentives to ratchet up tensions to appeal to domestic factions or groups, there is the broader geopolitical landscape to take into consideration: in particular, Japan’s fears about the rise of China. Of course, Japan is not the only state to become concerned about China’s increased power (the Philippines and Vietnam for instance have also been in disputes with China over islands that each side claims control over), and one reading of the tea leaves, as it were, could indicate that the U.S. and other states have started aligning together for the purpose of containing China. But these pressures are particularly acute for Japan. Thanks partly to China’s close geographic proximity and partly to the historical animosity between the two, the Japanese are especially fearful of what China’s rise might entail.

It is this fear that has led some in Japan to push back against China’s growing influence. There are some concerned that such a row might end up culminating in a confrontation and perhaps even a war that would draw the U.S. in as well. While I think this is probably going a bit too far, I do not find it unreasonable to say that the dispute between Japan and China could be a contributing factor to a crisis or war if tensions between the parties continue to rise. But in and of themselves, the islands are not a salient enough issue to lead a drive to war. Therefore, while we should clearly pay attention to these events, understanding the broader context that they are happening in is just as, if not more, important.

An Incomplete Waltz

Kenneth Waltz’s recent article on Iran’s nuclear program has engendered discussion and debate, in no less of a place than this blog with Michael Kalin’s post two weeks ago. Rather than rehashing what he has already mentioned, I want to try and reorient Waltz’s argument in the ongoing debate over Iran and emphasize what I believe should be the takeaway: Iran getting nuclear weapons does not automatically equate to a worst case scenario.

Politicians and academics alike have been clamoring for hitting Iran with, effectively, a preventive strike in order to take out their nuclear facilities. The word “preventive” is the most important and also the most contested. From a just war perspective, a preventive war, based on the idea of the target being a potential threat one day in the future, is unjust compared to a “preemptive” strike, which is justifiable since it is in anticipation of a clear and immediate threat.

There are many arguments employed in favor of attacks: the regime is irrational and will use them to attack Israel; nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists or others unfriendly to the U.S. and its allies; Iranian nukes could be a destabilizing force in the region, leading other states to obtain them. Aside from questionable assumptions regarding whether the U.S. or Israel could guarantee that the facilities could be eliminated (which is by no means a certainty), that there would be minimal backlash against such a strike from the Middle East and world in general (which makes little sense, as Posen notes), or that it could be contained to a few tactical strikes and nothing more (see Walt’s response to Kroenig’s call for “preventive” strikes, these three fears about Iran should be addressed individually.

The irrationality argument is that the character of Iran’s regime, with the Supreme Leader Khamenei seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam, is such that the U.S. cannot expect them to act in a rational manner. No less of an expert than Bernard Lewis has claimed that Iran is a different kind of state than the Soviet Union was in the Cold War and, as such, cannot be treated in a similar manner. But this is also the same Iran (with the same Supreme Leader) that held spontaneous candlelight vigils after 9/11, out of respect for the people who perished. This is the same Iran that was party to a potential “grand bargain” that would have led to them abandoning their WMD programs (the origins and validity of the bargain are questioned, but evidence for it seems credible enough, and by ignoring it some believe the U.S. undercut the Iranian reformists and solidified the position of the conservatives). There is nothing inherent that makes rational cooperation with the U.S. impossible. If the world has been able to keep North Korea (an “irrational” state if there ever has been one) in check for as long as we have, why not Iran as well?

The point of “loose nukes” is also important. The idea is that Iran might hand off nuclear weapons to other actors, who could then use them against the U.S. or Israel. Waltz argues that not only would it be very difficult for Iran the spread of these weapons, but that due to the expense and danger of developing them, it makes little sense for Iran to just give them to a third party (especially, I would point out, since they would have so few of them). I agree with these points, but also want to add one more: Iran has had nuclear material for quite a while now, but yet there is no evidence that any has been given to non-state actors, for the use in a “dirty bomb” or any other such device. The fact that this has yet to happen, while not iron clad evidence, does seem to imply that Iran wants to maintain control over the material. Yes, material for a “dirty bomb” is qualitatively different than a nuclear device, but it is interesting that nothing along these lines has occurred as of yet, and does lend credence to the idea that Iran is treating their nuclear program very gingerly.

Finally, there is the issue of destabilization – that Iran gaining nuclear weapons would lead to other states obtaining them. Waltz’s point that nuclear proliferation fears are unfounded is well taken. Although Pakistan responded to India’s nuclear tests in kind, that’s the only real instance of a state’s nuclear program leading to a reaction from another. As Debs and Monteiro rightly note, there was no rush for nuclear development after Israel gained the bomb. In addition, there was no such response from Japan or South Korea after North Korea tested their bomb, which undermines the idea that it has to do with the regime’s nature, since North Korea is considered just as, if not more, unstable that Iran. To argue that the act of Iran gaining nuclear weapons is enough to lead to a nuclear race seems like an empty claim.

I am not saying, as Waltz does, that the spread of nuclear weapons is inherently a beneficial thing. The U.S. should do everything in its power, short of tactical strikes or war to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. But I firmly believe that if Iran were to get the bomb, containment and deterrence are more than capable of keeping Iran in check and to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons throughout the region. Hopefully it will not come to that, but the important thing to take away from all this is that preventive strikes are unnecessary and will do more damage than good.

One Step Forward, Two Backward: Japan-South Korea Military Relations

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, right, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on May 14 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Recently, Japan and South Korea announced that they would sign a military agreement that the two sides had been working on for quite a while. While the two countries have strong economic ties, military relations have always been quite limited, mostly due to multilateral efforts with the United States. Considering the bad blood between these two countries, going back to Japanese efforts to colonize Korea during the early 20th century, this is not surprising at all. It does, however, make it that much more important to understand the elements of this agreement that ultimately pushed Japan and South Korea closer together.

In particular, the agreement had two major goals related to information sharing: North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese military expansion. While the former, thus far, has received the bulk of media attention, the latter deserves some attention as well. China is devoting enormous sums of money to expanding and modernizing its military. The size of China’s navy is increasing at an incredible rate, with China spending the most out of any country in the region, and being second only to India in the number of ships ordered. The purchase and refitting of a former Russian aircraft carrier has also contributed to concerns.

Japan and South Korea are not the only states in Asia that are concerned. There is a larger regional perspective to consider. For example, since India has traditionally been the dominant naval power in South Asia, and seeks to maintain that position, India’s efforts to keep up with China militarily might very well take on the characteristics of a naval arms race. In addition, India’s development of the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, with the ability to hit any part of China, seems to be fairly clear evidence that India is concerned with Chinese expansion.

To some observers, it appears to be that these countries are beginning to “counterbalance” against China, or move to limit Chinese power. From this perspective, the attempt at an agreement between Japan and South Korea seems like a single move in a greater tapestry of maneuvers designed to check the rise of China. The logic for this is simple: China is the biggest, most powerful state in the region by far, and continues to grow. This growth, and the subsequent increases in military spending and influence, threaten (or at least appear to threaten) the other states throughout Asia. Moving into the future, we should expect to see further attempts at counterbalancing, either internally, such as with India’s increased military spending, or externally, as with the attempted Japan-South Korea agreement.

To be certain, checking Chinese power is not a frictionless endeavor, nor is it guaranteed to properly occur. There are numerous factors that can intervene and prevent balancing from happening. One important factor is domestic politics, as factors within the state can delay or completely stop things from proceeding. Shortly after the agreement came to light, there was a significant backlash against the South Korean government, with the opposition party accusing of President Lee Myung-bak being “pro-Japanese.” Given that this is an election year, it is not surprising that we are seeing this agreement being pushed to the side for the time being.

Another major concern that could prevent effective coordination is the multitude of potential threats that exist, apart from China. South Korea and China have long been wary over Japanese military growth, and talks over the past couple of years about Japan removing the Article IX clause of its constitution, and thus legally allowing Japan to move from having a “Self Defense Force” to a full military, has caused a great deal of fear. It is not out of the question that if this came to fruition South Korea might end up attempting to play both sides against the other. Coming back to India, their recent shifts in military policy and spending have caused a reaction from their traditional enemy, Pakistan, thus potentially leading to increasing tensions between those two states, even if China is a larger threat to the region at large.

While some would argue that China is the clear and present danger in Asia, with the potential to hold a dominant position in regional politics, delving into the domestic politics of the various states throughout Asia raises concerns about how readily those states will be able to act jointly against a rising China. Specifically related to the agreement between Japan and South Korea, this seems to be more of a bump in the road than a checkpoint: after the election has passed, the military pact will almost certainly come into being, if only because the dual threat of North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese military might will demand it. Beyond that, however, only time will tell how events in Asia will unfold.