Japan must disavow pacifism for collective defence

A change in policy would fulfill, not violate, Japan’s national responsibilities as a defensive, responsible reaction to its worsening threat environment.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 22 June 2021 3 minute READ

Elbridge Colby

Co-founder and Principal, The Marathon Initiative

The question of how to respond to China’s enormous growth and increasing assertiveness is leading countries across the Indo-Pacific to grapple with uncomfortable – even previously unimaginable – policy changes.

Nowhere is this more true than in Japan. Most importantly, Japan must change its attitude toward military statecraft. West Germany’s postwar experience – its need to balance against the grave threat it faced in a responsible way – provides a valuable model.

For decades Japan pursued a highly restrained national security policy in which it avoided military statecraft and spent a bare one per cent of its gross domestic product on defence. But today Japan – and thus the US-Japan alliance – faces a grave threat from China, whose military capabilities have grown tremendously over the last decades.

Generally resisting Washington’s urgings to increase its military spending and participation, Japan’s defence budget has remained near its long-standing one per cent level

With its formidable air, naval, missile, space and cyber forces, China’s People’s Liberation Army now presents a very real threat: to Japan’s own territory, to Taiwan and to the American security presence in the region, all of profound concern to Japan. And if current trends are not reversed, China seems certain to be able to project military power throughout the Western Pacific and beyond.

Yet while Japan clearly recognizes this problem, its defence effort has barely budged in response to China’s massive military buildup. Generally resisting Washington’s urgings to increase its military spending and participation, Japan’s defence budget has remained near its long-standing one per cent level.

Many Japanese likely hope that the US will shoulder most of the burden of addressing the worsening military balance in Asia. But this will not work. The United States already spends more than three per cent of GDP on defence. The hope that the US will increase its defense spending goes against domestic political trends, in which the defence budget is unlikely to be significantly elevated, and may even decline. Although the American people value their long-standing allies, they are weary of endless wars and are focused on domestic challenges.

Furthermore, today is not like during the Cold War; contemporary Japan sits on the front lines of the threat. If Tokyo is unwilling to shoulder more responsibility, Americans might reasonably wonder why they are supposed to care and risk more on protecting Japan than the Japanese themselves do.

The US, for its part, needs to focus far more on Asia over other theaters and overhaul its military to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific. To its credit, Washington has – albeit too slowly – been moving in this direction in recent years. Its withdrawal from Afghanistan was an important step.

But Japan must change too – in order to meaningfully work with America to defend itself and the free and open Indo-Pacific that Tokyo advocates.

Change will only be possible if the Japanese see it as responsible and prudent. It can, but to do so Japan must fundamentally amend its understanding of its post-World War II responsibility away from pacifism and toward collective defense. One of the lessons many Japanese took from World War II was to constrain its military institutions and military statecraft: ‘never again’ would the military drag the country into war. According to this pacifist or anti-militarist mindset, renouncing the military is the responsible, even noble, path.

Contrast Japan’s postwar experience with West Germany. After the war, West Germans were similarly reeling from devastation and defeat, and also vowed ‘never again’. But, unlike Japan, the West Germans faced the enormous Red Army on the front lines of the Cold War.

NATO feared the Soviets would seek to reunify Germany by military force under Communist control. Vastly outgunned by the Warsaw Pact, NATO and West Germany had no choice but to build up the West German military. The West German Bundeswehr, the armed forces, became a core part of NATO collective defense; indeed, by the 1980s it was the most important military force defending NATO other than the US itself.

Japan is increasingly vulnerable and Tokyo’s contributions are critical for a favourable balance of power to check Beijing’s regional ambitions

In doing this, and in later debates about out of area missions, the Germans reframed ‘never again’ to ‘never again alone’. In addition to its commitment to collective defense, West Germany’s rearmament as part of NATO included an ethos of responsible military citizenship and statecraft known as ‘Innere Fuehrung’. This ethos sought to justify the Bundeswehr’s mission, promote dialogue with the public about the military and national security policy, and educate the armed forces about responsible citizenship and military statecraft.

The results speak for themselves: while West German pacifism would have meant Soviet domination of Europe, West Germany’s strong and responsible engagement in collective defence helped deter war and bring the Cold War to a peaceful and positive conclusion.

Today, the two countries’ roles are reversed. While Europe is comparatively peaceful, Japan is increasingly vulnerable and Tokyo’s contributions are critical for a favourable balance of power to check Beijing’s regional ambitions. In other words, today Japan is on the front lines, and its contribution is vital for collective defence.

During the Cold War, the Soviets responded to West German participation with propaganda that German militarism was once again on the rise. The Chinese would respond to greater Japanese activism with the same. But other countries know it is China – not Japan – which is the country whose defence spending has increased by 620 per cent since 1990; Japan is not flouting international law and threatening its neighbours. Greater Japanese activism is a defensive, responsible reaction to Japan’s worsening threat environment.

Such a fundamental shift will be uncomfortable for many Japanese. But as Japan’s leaders explain the need for change to their people, they can point to the case of postwar Germany: a democracy that bolstered its security against a dangerous threat by adopting a new narrative.

This article was originally published in Nikkei Asia.