Raising the bar on the military

Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations writes a thoughtful piece in todays Tribune. The Tribune is full of good stuff these days.

He expresses satisfaction with Japanese military affairs but points out:

Japan’s civil-military relations problem has more to do with the strength of the political system than with popular sentiment. Specifically, it derives from the weak position of political officials vis-à-$ vis the bureaucracy.

It is the same defect, in kind if not necessarily in degree, that led to Japan’s disastrous 20th century wars of conquest. During the early 1920’s, the military in Japan was less popular than it is today. A weak political system, however, allowed the Japanese military to manipulate events, and, ultimately, hijack the state.

After World War II, the military was hobbled by a variety of special restrictions, but the bureaucracy itself remained immensely powerful. Change has been painfully slow and the bureaucracy has lost few opportunities to counterattack.

When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s first foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, sought to impose her will on foreign policy, her subordinates conducted a guerrilla operation against her. They leaked information to the press in a successful effort to have her removed.

Freed of its current restrictions, the military would be a particularly potent domestic force. Its budget is several times that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it has more personnel than any other ministry or agency.

It is not sufficient to rely on the good will of a chastened Japanese military officer corps. Clearly, few if any Japanese officers today want to return Japan to its military-dominated past. But there is every reason to believe that military officers and civilians in the Defense Agency will push at the boundaries of civilian political control.

The political response will largely determine whether military challenges become more or less serious in the future. Ultimately, the question will be which progresses faster: the evolution of the Japanese political system, or the dismantling of restrictions on the military.

The time for taking stock of this question is now. While it may be too early for definitive answers, slow incremental change in Japanese military policy is arguably healthy for Japan and beneficial to the United States, but a rapid breakout may be in the interests of neither state.

This is especially interesting given Japan’s decision to pursue missile defence…