Photo/IllutrationThe Maritime Self-Defense Force's helicopter-carrying destroyers, Izumo, left, and Kaga (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

For the second time in his second term in office, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved on Dec. 18 the nation's new National Defense Program Guidelines as well as the Mid-Term Defense Program.

The defense guidelines and mid-term program aim for a "multidimensional comprehensive defense capabilities" to deal with threats in outer space and cyberspace, extending beyond traditional land, air and sea defense. They also aim to expand the Self-Defense Forces' striking power that was kept in check until now.

Any further move toward changing the course of the nation's traditional defense policy may well open the doors to a futile arms race.

The Diet must deliberate on the defense guidelines and mid-term program thoroughly when it convenes for the next ordinary session in January.

FROM ‘SHIELD’ TO ‘SHIELD AND HALBERD’

The previous defense guidelines were approved along with Japan's first National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2013, one year after Abe returned to the prime minister's office. Those guidelines were set with a 10-year lifespan in mind.The revision of the guidelines now--five years sooner than originally planned--indicates the government's strong intent to accelerate the nation's militarization in the spirit of the national security laws that came into effect in 2016.

What cannot be overlooked is the marked reinforcement of the strike capabilities of the SDF.

Under Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan's defense policy is kept strictly "defensive" in principle. In the event of a foreign invasion of Japan, the SDF is to serve as the "shield" and the U.S. military as the active "halberd." This has been the accepted division of roles.

Although the SDF's offensive capabilities have been gradually expanded, partly due to Washington's demand that Tokyo shoulder a larger responsibility for its own defense, we must say a line has now been crossed with the effective introduction of an "aircraft carrier" under the new defense guidelines.

An Izumo-class destroyer of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, able to carry helicopters, will be retrofitted to enable the deployment of U.S. F-35B fighters that are capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings (STOVL).

In the past, the government maintained that it would violate the Constitution to have an offensive aircraft carrier whose capability exceeds the minimum requirement for defense.

The government insists that the retrofitted Izumo is not an aircraft carrier because it will not carry F-35B fighters at all times. But this is pure sophistry.

There is no denying the possibility that the Izumo will be eventually dispatched to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the waters off the Middle East for refueling U.S. aircraft or serving as their landing and takeoff platform.

The new defense guidelines also spell out the addition of long-range cruise missiles to Japan's arsenal. These projectiles can strike targets from outside the ranges of enemy missiles.

The government and the ruling coalition maintain that the purpose of having these missiles is to ensure the safety of SDF troops, but they can be used also for strikes on military bases in an enemy nation.

Even though the government and the ruling coalition stress that nothing has changed with Japan's "defense only" policy, it is clear from the capabilities of those missiles and the retrofitted Izumo that a policy shift has been made from having just the "shield" to "the shield as well as the halberd."

DEFENSE IN OUTER SPACE AND CYBERSPACE

The focus of the new guidelines is not on dealing with the North Korean threat, but with the threat from China, which is building up its military force.The approval of the introduction of the Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system during the North Korean missile crisis was with an eye to countering Chinese missiles.

But the Aegis Ashore's efficacy is doubtful in proportion to its humongous cost. The government must rethink its introduction.

Granted, Japan needs to keep pace with rapid advances in military technology, including how to deal with missiles.

And we must accept the reality that defense against risks in areas such as outer space, cyberspace and electromagnetics has grown into life-and-death importance to national security.

The guidelines spell out the creation of a new force to deal with threats from outer space and the enhancement of the space situational awareness (SSA) system.

But there are complex legal and capability-related problems when it comes to determining the scope of the SDF's activities in compliance with the basic principle of Japan's defense policy.

Upgrading surveillance capability in outer space will improve the ability to identify targets of attack. Careful examination is a must for determining the offense-defense relationship in cyberspace.

POLITICAL DIALOGUE NEEDED

The Mid-Term Defense Program projects a record-high procurement cost of 27.47 trillion yen ($244.36 billion) over five years. The government intends cost-cutting measures to reduce the sum to 25.5 trillion yen, but whether that is achievable is another story.

We must not ignore Japan's present reality of a rapidly declining and aging population, low birthrate and severe fiscal constraints. Any sudden increase in defense spending will not win the understanding of the people.

There are obvious limits as to what the SDF can do. We must envision a realistic national security system that is appropriate to the state Japan is currently in.

Yet, the defense budget is being squeezed by massive purchases of U.S.-made weapons demanded by U.S. President Donald Trump. The government is ordering an additional 105 U.S. stealth F-35 fighters, including B-series craft that can be deployed aboard the Izumo. The total bill is estimated at 1.2 trillion yen.

Is buying the latest state-of-the-art weapons a really effective prescription for Japan's national security needs? The government must do a rethink.

In the United Nations disarmament agenda issued in May, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted, "Heightened tensions and dangers can only be resolved through serious political dialogue and negotiations--never by more arms."

What Japan needs now is a comprehensive security strategy that is achieved through diplomatic efforts to ease tensions and maintain regional security, not through excessive reliance on military power.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 19