Japan Self-Defence Forces' flexibility key to Japan's interests

Japan Self-Defence Forces' flexibility key to Japan's interests
Dennis Blair speaks during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Japan’s security issues.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

With the House of Representatives' passage of security-related bills that would enable limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence and other measures, the centre of the national security debate has now shifted to the House of Councillors. The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed retired US Adm. Dennis Blair to find out his views on what kind of role Japan should play in the realm of global security.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: How will the legislation affect US- Japan relations and the regional security environment?

Blair: The passing of the legislation to implement the Cabinet decisions is a good start in the right direction, but I think the alliance still needs to develop further in order to be as effective as it can be. The public discussion in Japan is a good idea so people are aware of defence issues.

The situation has changed in East Asia and the world because China has been adding to its defence budget 10 per cent a year for 15 years. The countries in East Asia unfortunately have to raise their military capability in order to keep the balance with China. We are just all getting higher levels of military spending without increasing our security.

That is a very prudent set of measures that Japan is taking to examine its entire defence approach to put more money into defence to operationalize the 2015 guidelines which were passed. But I don't think it goes far enough to give Japanese military commanders the flexibility that they really need to handle situations.

As I watch the debate in the Diet I can understand why everybody wants a specific example. There's a ship here and a ship there and a kind of "What will happen?" But I can tell you from a military planning point of view, you are never going to anticipate every single situation and know in advance what to do.

You have to develop principles and guidance, and let the military commanders make the decisions to carry out their missions within the overall political guidance. I think the next phase for Japan is to go beyond this really scenario-based, specific-situation type of thinking to a more mission-based kind of thinking.

Q: Do you want a Japanese presence in the South China Sea?

A: They ought to be there for joint maritime and air exercises. The Chinese interpretation of the law of the sea is much different from other countries. Japan and the United States say that 12 miles is your territorial sea, then you have your 12-mile buffer zone, and then you have your 200-mile EEZ.

But the only place you can restrict military operations like reconnaissance and exercises is in that 12-mile limit. The EEZ is just for fisheries, for hydrocarbons, for pollution controls and so on. The Chinese had the idea that they have rights in the EEZ, and they protest violently against our military aircraft, our ships going in there. So the way that you demonstrate that you do not agree with that is by operating your armed forces fully.

Japan sent planes down to Palawan Island [in the Philippines] a couple of weeks ago to take part in a reconnaissance exercise. That is a good thing. That's what Japan should do, that's what Australia should do, that's what India can do and that's what China can do. But nobody has veto power over international waters, so I think Japan ought to be part of a coalition of maritime nations that enforce freedom of the seas.

Q: With regard to the exercise of the collective self-defence right, there are many restrictions.

A: I think they make it very difficult for a Japanese commander and for a US commander who is working with a Japanese commander to react to fast-moving situations because they always have to go back and check with a lawyer in Tokyo. When there is a situation that involves danger - life and death, fire and don't fire - you can't do that.

I know that in Japan, the weight of history is very heavy, that Japanese people feel that in the 1930s, when Japanese military forces were really in charge of the country, that they did some bad things for the country. But the Japanese Self-Defence Force officers, sailors and soldiers that I know are completely democratic.

They know about government control of their actions. They understand that they can't go into places and take action on their own; they have to be within the guidance of their government. But they deserve the flexibility to be able to protect their own forces, to be part of a combined operation with the United States or other countries.

I hope that the Japanese people can understand that they should trust their armed forces to act in a responsible manner under the direction of their political government, within the rules that they're given. But that does not mean that you can anticipate every little action in advance; you have to have a national debate on it and approve it. Because that is just going to make Japanese defence capabilities slow and unresponsive, and they probably will not be able to be a full partner in some of these international missions.

Q: Why does the United States need more co-operation with Japan?

A: It is primarily because the nature of threats has become wider. In the Cold War, the threat was greater in size because there were nuclear weapons. Now our security challenges have become much more diverse; there are ISIL-type threats. There are areas of instability in the world which are important, like the Middle East. There's a country like China, which has sort of a nationalist growth and a lot of resentment against the time when they felt they were oppressed by Western countries. And all of the common challenges we have, like climate change and narcotics smuggling.

The number of threats to our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness has become much wider. You need more countries cooperating to operate on this. It's not that you can have one plan to stop the Russians coming to Hokkaido, which is what we had in the Cold War. Countries have to be able to take different responsibilities.

Sometimes it will be nonmilitary co-operation on sanctions like we have against Iran or North Korea, but sometimes you have to consider the use of military force because these people who threaten you don't understand sweet reason. Different partners can play different roles.

I think it is a little naive to think that by just defending your narrow territory, you are defending your country's interest. The nature of the world requires a wider set of options - including military operations. The maturity of the Japanese government and armed forces is such that Japan does not have to worry it's going to get out of control.

You have to defend your country's interests, which are more than just your territory. Japan has the maturity to be able to do that in a democratic way, a responsible way and a politically controlled way with its armed forces. And it does not have to be like the United States. It should, in its own way, be able to co-operate with other countries in protecting its interests.

Q: How do you want the Japanese and South Korean governments to co-operate with each other?

A: [South] Korea cannot defend itself without Japanese co-operation in the event of North Korean attacks. If North Korea attacks the Republic of Korea, then Japan has a clear interest in South Korea repelling that attack and ending it. Nobody expects Japanese troops to come onto the Korean Peninsula and fight.

But Japan will be the strong base from which a lot of American power and other allied countries would project themselves. If American navy ships involved in a Korean conflict were sailing out of Sasebo, then Japan ought to defend Sasebo. What most of us would expect of Japan would be a very strong base from which power could be projected to defeat North Korea.

The defence guidelines provide more certainty of that, and if they provide more certainty, then that raises the risk for North Korea taking the action. There needs to be some political leadership to bring the historical issues to the point that they don't interfere with the interests of both countries.

Blair, 68, is chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. A retired US Navy admiral, Blair served as the US National Intelligence director from 2009 to 2010 under the administration of President Barack Obama. Speech

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