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Japan’s Defense White Paper evokes strong reactions from China and South Korea

Pranamita Baruah - 8/30/2012

On July 31, the Japanese government released this year’s edition of the Defense White Paper titled ‘The Defense of Japan 2012’.

While submitting the report for the Cabinet approval, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto delivered a speech throwing some light on the document. While pointing out the rapidly changing security environment in East Asia, Morimoto particularly talked about the significant developments in China and North Korea in the last one decade. China’s military buildup and its constant military flexing in the Asia-Pacific region were the major highlights of Morimoto’s comments as well as the Defense White Paper. Just like the previous edition of the Defense White Paper in 2011, this year too, the report warns that China’s military movements are “a matter of concern” for the Asian region and the international community, and “should require prudent analysis.”

Key Points on China and the two Koreas:

While underscoring China’s rapid military buildup, the White Paper says that China’s defense spending has grown more than double the level it was five years ago. Chinese military spending has also reportedly expanded around 30-times over the last 24 years. In China’s Defense Budget this year, the Country’s defense spending for the first time topped the $100 billion mark, which is now more than 1.6 times that of Japan. Although the White Paper acknowledges that the defense figures provided by China might not be disclosing the entirety of its military spending, it argues that the gap between Japan and China on defense spending will almost certainly continue to widen further in the future. The Paper further argues that the growing defense spending of China has tensed the international community due to which, of late, many countries, the US in particular, has been shifting its defense strategy to focus more on Asia. Here while emphasizing on the Japan-US military alliance, the Paper also advocates the effective construction of Japan’s defense.

While highlighting China’s naval exercises, the White Paper states that China “plans to expand the sphere of its maritime activities” and carry out its operations “as an ordinary routine practice” in waters surrounding Japan, including the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea”. The report also accused Beijing of ‘intruding’ on Japan’s ‘territorial waters’ by carrying out major patrols near the Japanese territory of the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands), which has been claimed by China as its own territory. The White Paper also expressed the Japanese government’s increasing concern over China’s decision to strengthen surveillance around the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea region. Here the Paper cited two instances (in March-April 2011 and April 2012) in which Chinese helicopters, that appeared to belong to the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) of China, flew close to Japanese destroyers which were engaged in vigilance monitoring around the Senkaku area. While pointing out China’s long-standing territorial dispute in resource-rich South China Sea region, the White Paper has tried to speculate the intentions of the Chinese activities by repeatedly insisting on China “protecting maritime rights and interests” and “energy resources.”

More significantly, the White Paper for the first time points out a shift in China’s power structure. While noting that military-decision making is not transparent in China, the Paper argues that given the increasing number of cases in which Chinese military expressed its own stance on security issues, the relationship between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to have “been getting complex”. While citing Chinese PLA’s influence over the political decision making has been increasing, the report said it was a “risk management issue” and caution should be taken to deal with the powerful PLA.

On the domestic problems faced by China, the White Paper points out corruption within central and local communist leadership, regional disparities between urban-rural and coastal-inland regions, inflation, environmental pollution, rapid aging of population, etc. According to the Paper, all these factors could destabilize the government administration in China. Domestic ethnic minority issues in Tibet and the Xinjiang region might complicate the situation further. The Paper further argues that although after the autumn 2012, China might witness a substantial reshuffle in the CCP leadership, the next government would still have to deal with all those challenges mentioned above.

On North Korea, the White Paper argues that the country’s new leader Kim-Jong-un, with his regular visit to military organizations and insistence on the importance of military forces, continues to attach strong reliance on the military forces just like his late father and predecessor Kim Jong-il. In the meantime, the North’s maintenance and reinforcement of its so-called asymmetric military capabilities by developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles as well as Pyongyang’s repeated military provocations on the Korean Peninsula constitutes a major security concern in the East Asian region. The White Paper further argues that after its failed attempt at conducting a ballistic missile in April this year, North Korea “is likely to attempt similar launches” in the future.

On South Korea, the White Paper initially talks about the South Korea-US alliance which both the allies regard as “the primary axis of security” or the South and “the cornerstone” for the US in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. While citing the South’s engagement in promoting equipment export, the Paper states that such report reached $2.4 billion in 2011. According to the Paper, South Korea intends to become one of the world’s top ten arm exporters by 2012. It also reiterates that the Takeshima islands (known as Dokdo in South Korea) are an integral part of Japanese territory despite South Korea’s repeated claims over them.

China’s Response:

The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “strong discontentment” with the White Paper’s apparent concern over China’s rapid expansion of the military. While offering China’s stance on the Paper, Geng Yansheng, a spokesperson for Chinese Ministry of Defense recently stated: “China strongly opposes the groundless criticisms of its national defense development and military activity, as well as irresponsible remarks regarding China’s internal affairs, made in Japan’s defense white paper.” While reiterating China’s adherence to a road of peaceful development and maintenance of a purely defensive military policy, Geng stated that “China will continue to organize normal military exercises and training activities and resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty and marine rights.” Geng even alleged that Japan was making excuses for its continuous arms expansion, reinforcement of military alliances and “distorting facts” about regional security concerns.

The Chinese academicians seem to be highly critical of Japan’s recent Defense White Paper. They mostly argue that the Paper is a clear proof of Japan using its ambition for military independence to stage a military comeback. Critics are also of the view that the latest report lacks coherence possibly because in the last one year, Japan changed its defense minister four times.

Many Chinese scholars are of the view that after the 2010 National Defense Program Outline (NDPO), Japan has tried to deviate from “Basic Defense Force” approach and focused more on a new security strategy based on “multifunctional, flexible, and effective defense force” with a highly capable “dynamic deterrence” capacity. In this context, Li Wei, Director of the Institute of Japanese Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that Japan while on one hand appears to follow US strategy of balancing China’s military development, it also aims to realize its own military independence on the other. Such changes in Japan’s defense posture has made it possible for Tokyo to step up its efforts to intervene in the South China Sea affairs with other regional countries including Philippines and Vietnam. While arguing that Japan-US alliance is no longer as asymmetrical as before, Li observes that Japan has already turned it into a convenient tool to become a ‘normal country.’

According to Ye Hailin, a professor in international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Japan by pointing out China’s ordinary progress in defence enhancement as a regional security concern, has shown its “unbalanced mindset”. He argues that the passings of the Chinese naval vessels near the waters of Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is completely legal and justified as they were passing through international watercourse into the Pacific Ocean. Huo Jiangang, an expert on Japanese Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) further argues that China has not violated the navigation freedom in the waters as argued by the report. He alleged that Tokyo is “taking its imagination as a fact” and is misleading not only the Japanese people, but also the international community.

Many Chinese critics also argue that the Defense White Papers’ continued insistence on the ‘China threat theory’ is reflective of Japan’s Cold War mentality, right-wing thoughts and fear of China. According to them, Japan should treat China’s development as an opportunity instead of threat. Instead of deliberately creating international tension by making irresponsible comments and mischievous speculations on China, Tokyo should make a correct assessment of the situation and adopt a right attitude towards China’s peaceful rise.

Reaction from the two Koreas:

While reacting strongly to the White Paper’s criticism of the North Korea’s missile tests, the KCNA-the official news agency of North Korea, slammed the report as a document of “war and aggression” and “unpardonable provocation.” South Korea, which had a more friendly relation with Japan, also reacted strongly to Japan’s reiteration of its claim over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Seoul summoned Kurai Takashi, Japan’s Deputy chief of mission in South Korea to protest Japan’s claim. While offering a strongly worded protest, Cho Tae-young, the South Korean Defense Ministry’s spokesperson stated that: “The Korean government strongly protests Japan’s re-inclusion in its 2012 white paper of territorial claims over Dokdo, which is clarified as our territory by history, geography and international law.” He further urged Tokyo to take immediate coactive measures.

According to many security analysts, Seoul’s recent reaction to Japan’s White Paper seemed tougher than previous years. In earlier occasions, the South Korean Defense ministry preferred to call in Japanese embassy’s lower-ranking councilors and released comments under an unspecified official’s name rather than spokesperson’s statement. The new development can largely be attributed to Seoul’s decision to step up the level of countermeasures in response to Tokyo’s recent series of offensive steps in the Dokdo/Takeshima issue, including the publication of new high-school textbooks that renewed Japan’s claim over the disputed territories, the celebration of ‘Takeshima Day’ on April 11 in Tokyo, etc. Tokyo’s latest assertion is feared to deteriorate further Japan-South Korea relations, which is already facing difficult challenges over long-standing historical issues. In June this year, the last minute cancellation of the signing of the two counties’ first military pact to facilitate information sharing amid strong protests by South Korean civic groups and opposition parties clearly reflects the lingering tension between Tokyo and Seoul. The situation might aggravate further with South Korea’s recent decision to conduct military exercises in waters near Dokdo around late August to strengthen its defence in the light of Japan’s renewed territorial claims.


So far, Tokyo officially has not made any comment on the sharp responses received by the White Paper. However, many Japanese academicians and policy analysts have put forward their own stance on the Paper. Most of them seem to believe that to deal with China’s rapid military modernization and its increasing activities around Japanese territorial waters, Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) too should steadily strengthen their surveillance and patrol activities. They also insist that as the lack of transparency in Chinese military capabilities and decision-making process has been an issue of concern, Tokyo should pay close attention on that issue. Japan also needs to the “dynamic defense cooperation” with the US. Although critical of China’s military build-up, the Japanese analysts however seem to belie that there is an urgent need to step up the confidence-building measures between the two countries by reactivating bilateral defense exchanges. As for South Korea, they believe that Tokyo should strengthen further its deterrent capability by expanding military information sharing with Washington and Seoul. The analysts have pointed out that since 1994, Japan in its Defense White Papers has continued to use the same term to discuss North Korean nuclear issue stating that it “constitutes a serious destabilizing factor for security in the entire East Asian region.”

According to them, since 1994 onwards, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and launched series of ballistic missiles. It has also been involved in other kinds of military provocations which have caused serious concern to Japanese security. Under such circumstances, the security analysts emphasize that the White Paper should adopt a more accurate expression to reflect accurately the changing posture of Pyongyang on the nuclear issue.

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