Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe has to make difficult security policy decisions this year in the face of an increasingly volatile international environment.
One key factor is the rapidly deteriorating Sino-Japanese ties. Tokyo and Beijing are trading barbs over China's new fishing restrictions in the South China Sea, barely two months after tempers flared over China's new Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
The strained relationship hit a new low last month after Mr Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Dec 26. His move, slammed by Chinese state media as crossing "a red line", makes it even more difficult for him to mend ties with Japan's neighbours.
Mr Abe explained that he visited the shrine in order to "renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again". However, he did not explain what justified his visit to the place where not only some 2.5 million Japanese war dead since 1859 were enshrined, but also 14 Japanese wartime leaders charged with "crimes against peace".
After these 14 war criminals were enshrined in Yasukuni in 1978, some Japanese prime ministers visited the shrine, while others stayed away from it. Japan's late Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine after that, partly because he was concerned about possible negative consequences on Japan's relationship with its neighbours.
And his son Akihito has never visited the shrine.
Mr Abe's visit to Yasukuni has cast doubt upon his ability to be pragmatic and sensible in foreign and security policy. It has disturbed not only Korea and China, but also Japan's most important ally - the United States, which led the Tokyo Tribunal where Japan's wartime leaders were found guilty of war crimes.
It has made it politically difficult for American leaders to embrace the "proactive" security policy that Mr Abe is advocating.
New security strategies
LAST month, the Japanese government approved three important national security policy documents, namely the National Security Strategy, National Defence Programme Guidelines and Mid-Term Defence Plan.
Formulated for the first time, the Japanese National Security Strategy provided comprehensive policy directions for Japan's defence, foreign, energy and aid policies over the coming decade.
It proposed that Japan become more proactive in the following areas: Maintaining regional balance of power, deterring and coping with local contingencies in its vicinity, and contributing to international security activities led by the United Nations.
Building upon the strategic framework sketched in the National Security Strategy, the National Defence Programme Guidelines laid down defence policy guidelines and spelt out the future structure of the defence force.
It envisioned an army with amphibious capabilities and much greater mobility, a navy with better missile and air defence as well as anti-submarine and mine warfare capabilities, and an air force with enhanced patrol and surveillance and transport capabilities.
Based on the new defence programme guidelines, the Mid- Term Defence Plan articulated a specific procurement policy for the next five years. The army will acquire 52 amphibious landing vehicles and 17 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the United States, and 99 indigenously produced manoeuvre combat vehicles.
The navy will procure five destroyers, five submarines and 23 patrol aircraft. The air force will acquire four early-warning aircraft, 28 F-35A fighters, and three aerial refuelling and transport aircraft.
Another important development has been the creation of the National Security Council last month to ensure a whole-of- the-government policy-making and implementation process.
FORMULATION of the three key policy documents and the establishment of the National Security Council will help pave the way for a more coherent and proactive security policy in the future.
Despite this, Tokyo will still have to make several critical security policy decisions this year.
First, the Abe government is expected to revise the interpretation of the "pacifist" Constitution in order to make it possible for Japan to start exercising the right of collective self-defence. If the revision happens, Japan will be able to use force, if necessary, for the sake of its allies and friends, and participate in UN-mandated peace missions that involve combat operations. It would deflect criticism that Japan is a "free rider" or "cheap rider" in the international security arena.
This will not come without problems, however. Even if the Constitution is reinterpreted, Japan may not start exercising the right proactively. It will take a political decision to commit Japanese troops to combat missions.
The Japanese leaders and citizens have for so long enjoyed the benefit of "pacifist isolationism" of not having to put their servicemen and servicewomen in harm's way. Exercising the right of collective self-defence and actually committing Japanese forces to combat missions overseas may result in casualties. Risking Japanese lives for foreign citizens will not be too popular politically.
Already, the issue has triggered debate in Japan. Currently, 400 Japanese peacekeepers are operating in South Sudan. But, as the situation deteriorates in the country, there are calls for Japanese troops to be withdrawn quickly to avoid casualties. This is happening at a time when the UN is appealing for reinforcement of peacekeeping forces there.
Moreover, some argue that Japan should stay away from somebody else's security issues and focus on its own security needs. North Korea seems to have developed operational nuclear weapons and China is becoming even more assertive on the global stage.
Second, the Abe administration is thinking about lifting a ban on arms export. If the ban is lifted, economies of scale will set in and Japanese defence firms will start producing better weapons at lower prices.
Arms export will also help Japan enhance inter-operability with its regional partners. For example, Australia has expressed its interest in buying state-of- the-art submarines from Japan. If such a deal is made, it would make it much easier for the Australian and Japanese navies to operate closely together.
One tricky issue is potential transfer of weapon systems or components to third parties. Recently, Turkey requested Japan to participate in a joint tank development project. But, since Turkey is eager to sell its arms to foreign countries, the Japanese government needs to come up with credible means of ensuring that the jointly produced items will not fall into the wrong hands.
Finally, Mr Abe needs to decide whether Japan should acquire offensive capabilities and, if so, what kind.
In the past, Japan relied on the US for offensive military assets.
However, now that North Korea is developing missiles capable of reaching Guam, Hawaii and possibly the US mainland, the US might not be able to provide necessary offensive capabilities to Japan in case of need. The US will focus on the missiles targeted at itself first.
Worse yet, the US might think twice about attacking North Korea for fear of retaliation from Pyongyang if the latter's nuclear and missile development makes further progress.
If Japan were to acquire offensive capabilities, it would be a major departure from its traditional policy of "exclusively defensive defence". It might give an impression that Japan is becoming "aggressive", which might in turn further complicate the strategic environment in the region.
Such a development is likely to prompt a reassessment of the current security agreement between the US and Japan. Under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the US is obliged to provide for Japan's defence needs. If Japan can do the job on its own, why would the US have to do it for Japan?
Protagonists argue that Japan's acquisition of offensive capabilities would actually enhance the US-Japan partnership. Conducting offensive operations is a difficult business. You must snoop out hidden or mobile targets, survive enemy air defence fire and conduct highly precise strikes.
Gone are the good old days of the Cold War, when the US commitment to Japan's defence was guaranteed. Japan must start sharing more burdens, and the latest security policy documents are the first step.
Mr Abe, born in the Year of the Horse, has difficult decisions to make this year. He must stay focused on the future, not on the past.
The writer is associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme. He is the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.
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