Tapping the Potential of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces

A recent Tokyo Foundation policy proposal calls for greater strategic emphasis and interagency collaboration in Japan’s foreign aid program. In an interview with Nikkei Business Online, one of the report’s authors discussed the need for a comprehensive approach to security and the potential of the Self-Defense Forces as a peaceful instrument of Japanese foreign policy.

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QUESTION: On February 10 this year, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adopted the Development Cooperation Charter, replac ing the Official Development Assistance Charter [adopted in 1992 and revised in 2003] as the Japanese government’s basic development aid policy document. I understand that you and your colleague are advocating dialogue and other measures to build a more cooperative relationship between the development community—represented by JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency], which administers Japan’s ODA—and the security community, specifically, the Self-Defense Forces.

IPPEITA NISHIDA : That’s right. In 2013 the Tokyo Foundation launched a project titled Linking Foreign Aid and Security Cooperation, the main objective being to rethink Japanese aid from a security perspective. Team members conducted a series of interviews with government officials and researchers, both at home and abroad, notably in Europe and the Horn of Africa, where the SDF conducts two field operations: one in South Sudan as a part of a UN peacekeeping mission and the other in the Gulf of Aden to counter piracy.

© United Nations Photo
© United Nations Photo

Before the ODA Charter was revised in February this year, we published our findings and recommendations in a policy report titled “Reviewing Japan’s Foreign Aid from a Security Perspective (to be translated in 2015).” The thrust of our proposal was the need for program guidelines reflecting a comprehensive and integrated approach to security and development. We’re not suggesting anything unrealistic like direct SDF intervention in a conflict. In fact, we point out that there are things Japan can do better in this area without overhauling the current framework.

The key will be enhancing interagency cooperation under a whole-of-government approach, but this will present a major challenge in Japan’s rigid government system, particularly in the area of peace-building, given the cultural and normative gaps between the development and security communities.

Security and development, though, are two sides of the same coin. This is one of the lessons the international community has learned over the past quarter century from such incidents as the humanitarian crises in Africa and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military intervention in a conflict zone can maintain relative stability only for the moment. If you want to build enduring peace, humanitarian and development aid must be directed to rebuilding society, helping to allocate the dividends of peace and facilitate reconciliation and hopefully creating a society resilient enough to absorb future shocks. Unless you do so, there’s a high probability that violence will return or even spill over. Just look at what’s happened in Iraq and Syria. The UN has also come to understand the importance of integrating security and development, with current peacekeeping missions being mandated to channel significant efforts into such areas as governance, protection of civilians, and civil and social infrastructure rehabilitation.

Or let’s look at an example that involves Japan. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has been involved in a multinational effort to crack down on piracy in the Gulf of Aden, part of the maritime corridor connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. However, this only addresses the surface of the problem. The root causes are the crisis and instability in Somalia—the collapse of government and the deterioration of social and economic conditions in the course of nearly 20 years of civil conflict. Under these conditions, piracy becomes a rational economic choice. Through development assistance, we need to create the conditions that allow people to live with dignity, free from want, so that they don’t have to resort to piracy. This is just one example illustrating the need for greater policy coordination between development and security.

Since the ODA Charter was last revised in 2003, when JICA was headed by Sadako Ogata, Japan has undertaken a number of peace-building projects in post-conflict and fragile states. These include clearing land mines in Cambodia, building social infrastructure in Afghanistan, promoting the Mindanao peace process in the Philippines, and rebuilding infrastructure in South Sudan. Such projects are likely to continue, but generally speaking, the Japanese development community has been less than enthusiastic about cooperating with the SDF. The reason is that as a general rule, development practitioners are primarily concerned about the welfare of the local population, while the defense community is more interested in securing strategic goals. Many aid workers are also mindful of the political sensitivity of the host community to the presence of military forces and thereby try to avoid contact with them.

On the other hand, from as early as 2004, the security policy community has recognized the importance of aid in conflict prevention and peace-building. Such narratives are then reflected in official policy documents like the National Defense Program Guidelines. The reaction of the ODA community, though, was, “We don’t want to be used as a political tool by the government in power.” The ambitions that strategists had in mind apparently didn’t coincide with the way development professionals work up projects in the field with the local people. Aid workers might also have worried that their budgeting and planning authority would be curtailed or that the government would cut funding for ongoing projects.

But part of this feeling may have come from what aid workers actually experienced in the field. By nature, humanitarian and development officers in fragile zones need to work with the military, whether they be on a UN peacekeeping mission, local troops, or rebel forces. But this can often be quite difficult since they’re often not familiar with the language, operations, or tactical assets that the military employs.

Effective cooperation between sectors doesn’t happen overnight. Even in business, you have to lay the groundwork, and that’s all the more crucial in a peace-building setting, where people’s lives could be on the line. We can’t just leave it to the field officers to figure out. Governments need to build a firm foundation for operational cooperation by fostering mutual understanding and trust through dialogue and exchange. Recently, we’ve seen some initiatives along these lines in Japan, with JICA and the Ministry of Defense launching personnel exchanges in October last year. But progress is slow. I get the impression that people on both sides are still hesitant to take the plunge for fear of being ostracized by their respective communities.

Diversification and Policy Coordination

QUESTION: To ensure effective cooperation, your report recommends establishing an office of peace building and international security within the National Security Council to coordinate ODA and other forms of development aid as well as the SDF’s international operations.

NISHIDA: Until now, the mainstay of Japanese foreign aid has been official development assistance to support economic growth and social development in developing countries. While this will remain the general rule, there’s been talk of incorporating other modes of economic assistance that provide more latitude in terms of target and purpose. For example, the new charter expands the types of aid for countries that have graduated from the DAC list of aid recipients and calls for synergies between ODA and non-ODA assistance. It also considers the use of development aid to support foreign militaries that are involved in civilian affairs or are providing disaster relief. In our recommendation, we argue for new tools, like a separate aid account to achieve diplomatic goals, to enable the government to better coordinate its security policy.

This is why we proposed establishing an office of peace building and international security, although we realized that this could take some time. The National Security Council was only established in late 2013. It has just sixty-odd members at present, which makes it pretty small for a government organ entrusted with national security policy in the broadest sense. When a situation like the recent ISIS hostage crisis arises, it may very well take up all the council’s resources. So, while I’m sure the council recognizes the importance of international security cooperation, it’s naturally going to place top priority on issues with direct relevance to Japan’s own security. So, from the standpoint of the allocation of policy resources, this might have to wait.

QUESTION: You’ve studied Western countries’ efforts to integrate development and security policy. Do you ever feel daunted by the obstacles to interagency cooperation?

NISHIDA: Well, of course. At an international symposium on the comprehensive approach that the Tokyo Foundation co-organized in Brussels in 2013, a senior official involved in policymaking for the EU called it “an evolving concept” that was still emerging from a process of “trial and error.” In Brussels, they may draw up beautiful plans calling for coordination among many different agencies, but out in the field, it seems that things don’t always go as planned. Certainly there are cases in which the envisioned collaboration never really gets off the ground.

The author, third from left, and Tokyo Foundation President Masahiro Akiyama, to his right, at Japan
The author, third from left, and Tokyo Foundation President Masahiro Akiyama, to his right, at Japan

In Japan, we have the opposite problem. People in the field are doing their best to work together, but there’s no big picture, no coordination at the policy level. A US military officer involved in civil-military operations in Djibouti told us that the keys to cooperation are communication, building mutual trust, and ensuring that personnel share a basic vocabulary and understanding of operations. That’s why the US government places great emphasis on educational exchange between the civilian and military sectors. For example, civilian officers in the Department of State and USAID [United States Agency for International Development] often study at the National Defense University for a certain period of time to acquire a basic understanding of military and security matters. The State Department has a Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which is charged with forging and maintaining partnerships with the defense community, and it holds a wide variety of workshops and other training opportunities.

We learned that the first step is to build this sort of culture of cooperation. Making the decision to actually collaborate on something comes later. The main thing is to develop criteria for such decisions by clarifying each side’s strengths and weaknesses and identifying issues. It’s also vital to build interpersonal relationships.

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force has an International Peace Cooperation Activities Training Unit that provides training to SDF troops prior to any overseas operation. And for the past eight years, they’ve been holding annual workshops on civil-military cooperation with the participation of humanitarian and development workers as well as scholars. But these are basically oriented to fostering cooperative relations in the field. Coordination is also needed at the policy level.

New Options for Noncombat Security Cooperation

QUSTION: Cultural differences between organizations can raise huge obstacles to cooperation even in the private sector. It seems to me that collaboration imposed from on high could have the effect of creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Would it be impractical to proceed gradually, by supporting and building on the kind of collaboration that develops in the field?

NISHIDA: It’s wonderful when people come up with bright ideas for cooperation while actually working in the field. But if you take the larger view, that may not be the best way to achieve bigger policy goals. So, while such partnerships can make for inspiring stories, they don’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny in terms of legitimacy or how well they reflect government policy. The focus of cooperation might not reflect local priorities, either. As things stand now, too much responsibility is placed on the individual field offices. We believe there’s a need for a cultural shift within the organization to correct this.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Abe has set in motion a number of important changes affecting Japan’s foreign policy—not just the new Development Cooperation Charter but also changes in the government’s interpretation of the Constitution and in Japan’s arms-export policy. What’s your overall opinion of these initiatives?

NISHIDA: I would give them a positive rating in that they’re oriented to a more integrated approach to security and development. I’ve felt for some time that we can contribute much more with the resources at our disposal. The changes Abe has made will open up new possibilities for making use of those resources. However, this will not lead to a sudden jump in the SDF’s overseas engagements. Relaxing the arms-export ban is a new step, and it should open the door to the transparent transfer of defense equipment for peace operations.

QUESTION: Are you saying you think we should do more with the SDF as one of the tools we have to pursue our national interest?

NISHIDA: Yes. But I don’t feel we need to put Japanese lives on the line in order to make a meaningful contribution to international security. Japan and the SDF are subject to special historical and societal constraints that prevent us from meeting all the expectations of other nations. But then, to some extent the same can be said of any country. Many countries continue to attach national caveat restrictions on how their troops can be used. What’s important, I think, is to be able to make the case that we’re doing all we can within such constraints.

Broadly speaking, foreign policy is the mobilization of resources of all kinds to influence other countries, regions, and international institutions in pursuit of national objectives. So, what are the tools of foreign policy? There’s diplomatic negotiation. There’s the establishment of legal frameworks, such as international law, treaties, and alliances. Public diplomacy is also a tool to influence others, shape public opinion, enhance one’s image, and so forth. Then there’s the use of economic power. This encompasses not only economic aid but also trade, international finance, and other modes of involvement in the world economy, as well as sanctions. And finally, there’s military force. Having credible defensive and power projection capability can send a tacit message, with the actual use of those resources being another matter.

To date, many countries have placed great emphasis on military might as a source of hard power. But Japan, under the postwar Constitution, has renounced the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. And most of the Japanese people want to keep it that way. Where economic clout is concerned, we may be the world’s third-largest economy, but we’re stagnating, and we’re not in very good shape fiscally. The general perception of Japan’s stature and influence in the international community is slipping in relative terms. Under the circumstances, we need to give serious thought to crafting a strategy that makes optimum use of the instruments we have at our disposal. One of those instruments is foreign aid, which Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has called “our most important foreign policy tool.” Another is the Self-Defense Forces, which can help enhance our influence and stature in the international community by contributing to international security.

A Hedging Policy in the Middle East?

QUESTION: I guess the issue is where and how to make use of that capital.

NISHIDA: Right. If we’re going invest, we should invest in projects with low risk and a high rate of return. Like what? Well, to begin with, anti-piracy operations are a no-brainer. Incidents of piracy have fallen from more than 200 a year at their peak to about 15 in 2013. And yet Japan has maintained the same level of commitment. Why? Because it’s a good investment. It’s a direct and highly visible contribution to international peace and stability. Moreover, it benefits Japan directly by ensuring the safety of our sea lanes. It contributes to regional intelligence gathering, and it’s something we can do in partnership with other countries, especially the United States. Since summer 2014, half the deployed assets are participating in CTF-151, a US-led, multinational, counter-piracy coalition. It supports Africa, a region in which Japan has high economic hopes and interests. It has all these merits, and yet it’s a relatively low-risk, low-cost operation. In 2012 and 2013, when I visited Djibouti, some Western diplomatic and military officers asked me if the SDF would soon be leaving. I told them that they probably wouldn’t, given these considerations. One of the key challenges going forward will be finding other comparably cost-effective channels for involvement.

QUESTION: In other words, you believe there is plenty of scope for the SDF to contribute to international security without crossing the line in terms of combat or risk to life and limb?

NISHIDA: Exactly. For example, there’s been talk in the media about government plans to beef up the SDF’s anti-piracy base in Djibouti. This would meet multiple objectives, and I think that’s a smart move. The base was originally established for two P-3Cs to carry out aerial surveillance as part of the anti-piracy effort. I think it makes perfect sense to expand and develop it as a base for other contributions in the region. Djibouti has become an important hub for regional intelligence gathering and international cooperation, particularly with the United States, France, and the EU. Japan was able to use its base in Djibouti to support the international response to the Ebola epidemic, flying C-130H transport planes first to Djibouti and from there to West Africa. I think that experience threw into relief the advantages of having a base there. The next step for Japan is to deepen its involvement in the region and provide substantive support with the help of such existing facilities and transport routes.

QUESTION: If the SDF and Japanese development personnel could develop long-term relationships with local officials and citizens in Djibouti and the surrounding region, it might be a very useful in hedging against potential risks and enhancing our intelligence gathering so we’re better prepared for situations as they arise.

NISHIDA: Absolutely. In the wake of the execution of Japanese hostages by ISIS, some people were probably asking why Japan wasn’t able to negotiate more effectively with key players in the region. If we made a real, long-term security commitment to the region, as symbolized by the air base in Djibouti, and established a hub for logistical and other operations, we’d have more to offer other countries. This could happen, for example, through humanitarian assistance, which would create a more permissive environment for our presence. Then there’s the intelligence that military forces share on a need-to-know basis. This sort of exchange fosters mutual trust and promotes cooperation grounded in a common understanding of the situation on the ground. That’s extremely important.

I think such a base would also be helpful in terms of fostering a better understanding of the SDF’s mission, capabilities, and limitations, particularly among European military and security officials and personnel. As an Asia-Pacific ally, Japan has been cooperating with the United States on security for a long time, but if we’re serious about safeguarding the existing international order, we need to enhance our collaboration with Europe as well.

In terms of networks and information sources in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Europeans are much better positioned than Japan and have a different set of utilities to offer from the United States. Besides, in the case of an emergency in Africa, it would make more sense to rely on European countries, which have extensive expertise and operational capabilities in the region, than to deploy an SDF mission to rescue Japanese citizens.

Some Diet members are pushing for a small SDF unit to be stationed in Djibouti for noncombatant evacuation operations in case of an emergency. With limited capabilities entitled to the SDF and weak field intelligence in Africa, this wouldn’t be a realistic option. Considering its low diplomatic presence and severe personnel shortages, moreover, Japan’s Foreign Ministry isn’t capable of gathering up-to-the-minute intelligence on all 54 African countries. After the Algerian hostage crisis in January 2013, the Japanese government boosted the number of military attachés at its African embassies from two to nine. This is an improvement, but they can’t keep track of everything that’s going on. They’re probably facing serious communication barriers as well. Besides, SDF troops on peacekeeping or anti-piracy missions are currently rotated every four to six months. Africa isn’t our number one priority at the moment, but we do need to know what’s going on, and the best way to access such information would be to cooperate with France, Britain, the EU, the United States, and other countries. We can gradually expand our own information network in the process and eventually put ourselves in a position where we can assist others.

Interagency cooperation can facilitate this process. First, the two communities need to start sharing information and perceptions on a routine basis to cultivate mutual understanding. Then we can begin thinking about ways that we can combine our development and peacekeeping capabilities in the field to enhance Japan’s international influence in a manner consistent with its basic principles.

Interview conducted by Hiroyuki Yamanaka. Adapted and translated by the Tokyo Foundation with permission from Nikkei Business Online.

Ippeita Nishida

  • Research Fellow, Tokyo Foundation