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Japan's Defence White Paper 2013 and Responses from China & South Korea- An Assessment


On July 9, 2013, the Ministry of Defence of Japan released its Annual White Paper 2013. This is the first Defence White Paper released under the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The major highlight of the White Paper is the demonstration of nationalist rhetoric and a far more vigilant tone than in previous years as it described the regional security challenges that Japan faces and how it plans to respond to them. In the forward, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera observed that the issues and destabilizing factors in Japan’s security environment “have become pronounced, acute and more problematic” and vowed to “protect our people’s lives and assets, and our territorial land, sea and sky, till the end”.

The Japanese government has also been rattled by renewed belligerence from North Korea, which fired off a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February. Those moves suggest that it is pushing ahead with plans to develop more advanced and longer-range missiles that could ultimately carry nuclear warheads. Coupled with its nuclear tests, North Korea’s weapons program “has developed into a more real and imminent problem for the wider international community,” the White Paper said. The forward listed North Korea’s satellite and nuclear tests, and “the rapid expansion and intensification of activities by China in the waters and airspace around Japan”, as the most serious challenges to Japan’s security. As a result, Onodera explained, the government of Abe “has decided to increase the defense-related budget practically for the first time in 11 years to strengthen (Japan’s) defense posture”. Abe inherited the crisis from a previous government, but has made securing Japanese territorial claims, and strengthening the military more generally, a priority of his government. Therefore, he ordered the first increase in Japan’s military budget in 11 years, and set a longer-term goal of amending Japan’s constitution to loosen constraints on its armed forces.

This is the first such report published since Abe returned to power as Japan’s prime minister with a massive mandate in December 2012. His primary objective is to alter Japan’s pacifist Constitution, drafted by US military occupation forces shortly after Japan’s defeat in 1945. That makes some of Japan’s neighbors uneasy, believing it could lead to a revival of Japanese militarism. There is a widespread perception in the region that Japan has never sufficiently expressed remorse for its brutal colonization of the Far East and much of the Asian continent before and during the Pacific War.

In January 2013, for the first time in eleven years, Abe pushed up annual defence spending by 0.7 per cent to 4.68 trillion yen, or $46 billion. His government is also conducting a review of its long-term defense policy guidelines that will set the course for the nation’s defense strategy for the next decade. The guidelines are expected to be released by the year-end. It is also increasing the scope of defense drills with its primary ally, the US, which maintains more than a dozen military bases and tens of thousands of uniformed personnel in Japan. Abe has also sought to bolster military cooperation with the US. But Japan has struggled to hold America’s attention. President Obama skipped a meeting with Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013.

The White Paper gave few details about what the guidelines may include. It highlighted two new areas under discussion that could significantly change the nature of the role of the Japanese military as a self-defense force: developing the ability to launch preemptive attacks on enemy bases abroad and the creation of an amphibious force similar to the US Marine Corps. The white paper’s most significant shift in tone came in its description of China’s soaring military influence and growing territorial assertiveness.

Within Japan, opinions about the role of the SDF still differ. As in the case of anti-nuclear sentiment prevalent after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, there also exists a strong sentiment against the country having a standing army, notwithstanding the fact that the SDF is already a potent force in the world. This is because majority of the Japanese would not rejoice their country to drift towards militarism. But if the external environment deteriorates and Japan finds its security is threatened, as a sovereign nation, it becomes the duty of the state to increase preparedness. As such the White paper makes provision to give greater voice to the SDF personnel in matters of duty. Therefore, a great number of mini essays are written by members of the SDF in an effort to raise their profile. Some of the writers were soldiers involved in the preparation of missile defense at the time of recent North Korean weapons tests. Others included those patrolling and monitoring the front lines of the island dispute with China. There were also essays by those who participated in the increasingly frequent joint military exercises with the US, including island-landing drills that elicited angry protests from Beijing.

Reactions from China

It was for the first time the official annual review of Japan’s defence posture accused China is using illegitimate force to press its claims. It noted: ““The attempts have been criticised as assertive and include risky behaviours that could cause contingencies. Thus, there is a concern over [China’s] future direction”. The comments drew immediate response from Beijing which accused Japan of revisionism, a strategy it has been using throughout the islands stand-off. Within hours of the issuance of the Japanese White Paper, the foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing responded by accusing Tokyo of making unfounded accusations against China. Japan and China have a long-standing dispute over small islands in the East China Sea controlled by Tokyo. Tension has escalated since the central Japanese government, in September 2012, purchased the unoccupied islands (known as Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan) from their private Japanese owner. The move sparked large protests and boycotts of Japanese products in China. Onodera said the Chinese “have attempted to change the status quo by force in ways incompatible with the existing order of international law and in ways that could be seen as provocative.”

By playing up the China threat, a state news agency Xinhua commented, Japan runs risk of playing with fire. After “taking pride in the atrocities” committed by Japan during World War II, the increase in Japan’s defense budget translated Abe’s attempt to “cater to rightists at home” ahead of the upcoming elections to the Upper House on July 21. The Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying defended by saying China’s maritime activities are carried out according to international law, the country is on the path of peaceful development and always stands for resolving territorial disputes through dialogue. She accused Japan of playing up the China threat, causing tensions and confrontation, and “the international community cannot help but worry over where Japan is heading.”

The White Paper also suggests Japanese forces should have the capability to attack enemy bases as an effective deterrent against ballistic missile threats. That was in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, as indicated by defense minister Onodera.

After Abe returned to power in December 2012, he made a pledge to stand firm against regional provocations, particularly the intensifying the disputes with China over the chain of inhabited islands. Tokyo said that China “resorts to tactics viewed as high-handed, including attempts to use force to change the status quo, as it insists on its own unique assertions that are inconsistent with the order of the international law.” It added: “Among them are dangerous actions that could lead to unintended consequences. In a way, this makes us concerned where we are headed.” Since Japan made the uninhibited islands state property in September 2012, Chinese vessels have made frequent intrusions into Japanese waters. In January 2013, Japan claimed Chinese ships locked weapons-guiding radar on Japanese self-defense forces destroyers in the East China Sea targets near the disputes islands, but did not open fire. Japan obviously cannot overlook China’s flagrant acts of provocation. There always remains the risk of an accidental military clash. Seen from this Japanese perspective, the use of such strong language about China in the White Paper is understandable. It clearly reflects current tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The White Paper described in detail incursions by Chinese government ships into Japanese waters, citing 41 such incidents from September 2012 to April 2013. The report accused China of “engaging in dangerous acts that could give rise to a contingency situation”, such as when a Chinese naval vessel directed its fire-control radar at a Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer in January. It also urged China to “accept and stick to the international norms”.

Japan is no longer a pussy cat frightened by the tiger’s roar and Abe seems determined to unshackle Japan’s soft image. Indeed, the memories of the war must not be allowed to cloud the present relations. The present generation cannot be held accountable for the mistakes made by the older generation. Successive political leaders have expressed remorse of the past misdeeds but those have not assuaged the sentiment of the Chinese and South Koreans. The recent belligerence of China has caused disquiet across Asia. Japan under Abe seems unwilling to take any more pressure. National sovereignty is precious for the Chinese as is also for the Japanese and none should cross the limit in defining it.

In view of the tension arising out of the territorial issue and following the nationalization of the islands in the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands chain by the state in September 2012, Japan is now thinking of nationalizing any unclaimed islands in its waters in a bid to bolster its territorial claims. The government plans to establish a new liaison council aimed at strengthening the administration of Japan’s 400 or so remote islands to ensure it has control over natural resources in the surrounding waters. The step might include islands that have no legal owners. A survey is proposed with an aim to reinforce the nation’s control over marine resources and security; it is to be completed by the end of 2015 by which time necessary actions, such as nationalizing remote islands without owners, are expected. Japan comprises more than 6,000 islands that form a total of about 4.47 million square kilometers of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), about 12 times the nation’s total land area of about 380,000 square kilometers. Remote islands are considered to be those other than Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and the Okinawa main island. About 500 are considered base points for Japan’s territorial waters and EEZ. The government has been working to preserve 99 islands that are EEZ base points through a policy outline compiled in 2009 regarding the management of oceans. The planned survey will cover the remaining 400 islands, which serve as the base points of territorial waters.

Japan’s sovereignty extends to the air space above its territorial waters, as well as the sea and sea bottoms beneath them. Preserving the remote islands will also contribute to the preservation of fishery and subterranean resources under the sea bottom of the nation’s territorial waters. Chinese maritime activity, including intrusions by submarines and other naval vessels, have intensified in sea areas near Japan. The planned research is also aimed at selecting which remote islands can be utilized for building a network to monitor such activity. Territorial waters are defined as sea areas 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometers) from a nation’s coastlines. Coastal and island nations can set territorial waters under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The planned survey also reflects the opinion of Prime Minister Abe, who has repeatedly stressed Japan will protect territorial waters at any cost. Since it has a large number of remote islands, Japan cannot appropriately manage and preserve all of them. The fishing industry has also expressed concern over the situation, particularly in Kyushu, which is close to China, South Korea and Taiwan. Many fishermen have demanded that the government take action to preserve remote islands that can enhance the management of territorial waters. The government has already compiled its basic policy for preserving remote islands, but will consider additional measures based on the results of the envisaged survey.

Thus, Japan’s fringe islands define the limits of its territorial waters, and the government is keen to further protect those areas in light of China’s incessant maritime activities near Japan’s territorial waters. The government plans to survey the 400 islands, half of which remain unnamed but now plans to name them. The new council is expected to be established after the Upper House elections on July 21. In 2012, Japan completed the process of naming all of the 99 remote islands that define its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, which gives it the sole rights to explore any natural resources within. Japanese government’s activism on this island issue is because of tensions arising out of China sending government ships into its waters to exert its claim over the set of islands managed by Tokyo in the East China Sea. Beijing has also disputed Tokyo’s claim to Okinotorishima, a tiny, barely visible speck of land 1,700 km south of Tokyo, saying the wave-swept atoll cannot be regarded as an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The onus lies in both the countries to ensure that a potential “contingency situation” is averted. Seized of this heightening tension, both the countries had agreed in 2012 to set up a “hotline” between respective high-level defense officials but given the strained ties between the two, even this minimum necessary measure to avert a crisis is yet to be implemented. Given the strong language used in the White Paper, it remains unclear how Japan will deal with China’s growing naval presence in the disputed area.

Thus, one can see this time more confrontational expressions in the White Paper than last year’s White Paper. The 2012 White Paper simply said that “China “uses tactics viewed as high-handed, and that in a way makes us concerned where we are headed”. It had stated peace can be secured by combining defense capabilities with diplomatic efforts. The 2013 White Paper has done away with the above statement, but repeats what was also said last year: Non-military means alone, such as diplomatic efforts, will not avert an unexpected invasion. Notwithstanding the clarification issued by the Chinese spokesperson that China abides by international code of conduct, Japan complains that intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft into its territorial waters and airspaces were “extremely deplorable” and asked Beijing to “share and observe the international order”.

Amid the growing regional animosities, Japan has no choice but to intensify its defence cooperation with the US. The Defence White Paper stresses this. Japan and the US have recently started the review of the bilateral defense guidelines with a goal of giving a greater role to Japan in the defence of its own nation and regional security. As Washington comes under pressure at home to cut defence spending even as the US seeks to ‘pivot’ its policies towards Asia, Japan is concerned and this puts pressure on it to increase the share of the burden of defence.The paper notes that in the security environment, the Japan-US bilateral security alliance is essential and the deployment in Okinawa of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft will “greatly contribute to peace and stability in the region”. The paper also includes other topics such as cyber security an area which Japan thinks as necessary to improve to counter cyber attacks.

Reaction from South Korea

South Korea, also a potential target of the rival North’s forces, joined China in criticizing the Japanese document. The South Korean government protested the Japanese government’s unjust territorial claims over a rocky outcrop, covering less than one-fifth of a square kilometer, held by South Korea, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. South Korea’s foreign affairs ministry said “Japan’s incorrect view of history deserves to be solemnly criticized”. It further said, all these will unlikely ease ongoing tensions in the region whose stagnant economic growth could further fuel nationalist rhetoric from all sides. Speaking for the defence ministry, Col Wi Yong-seop denied Japan has any historical, geographical or legal right to the rocks. Colonel Wi said if Japan refuses to withdraw its territorial claim there can be no expectations of defense exchanges or military cooperation between the two neighbors. South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed the view that the current atmosphere prevents Seoul from holding summit with Tokyo. Addressing the media on July 10, Park said relations with Japan will deteriorate further if problems were to emerge soon after she met with Prime Minister Abe. The Takeshima/Dokdo island issue and the issue of ‘comfort women’ are instant irritants that continue to bedevil bilateral ties. While acknowledging the importance of summit meeting, Park said such meetings are meaningful only when the two countries are moving in a positive direction. From Seoul’s perspective, Japan’s positions, including claiming sovereignty over the islets and refusing to redress the wartime sex slave issue, continue to cause distress in South Korea and thus a bilateral summit should not take place until the atmosphere becomes future-oriented.

When the White Paper described South Korea-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan as Japanese territory, the foreign ministry in Seoul summoned a senior diplomat from the Japanese embassy to deliver the protest. The statement said: “We strongly protest Japan’s including a territorial claim again on Dokdo, which is clearly our territory”. South Korea urges Japan to immediately delete the claim from the White Paper and to prevent the recurrence of similar cases. It also said South Korea will never tolerate Japan’s territorial claim to the islets.


An emphasis on China stands out in the latest Japanese Defence White Paper. This is largely because of increased tensions over the Senkaku Islands since the government purchased several of them from a private owner in September 2012. The influence of Abe and his administration’s view on security comes out clearly in the White Paper. In the sections that discuss the military situations in other countries, the largest portion is dedicated to China, at 20 pages, which is considered more than the 12 pages that discuss North Korea and its nuclear program. There is a view amongst analysts this was overdone, but opinions differ given the gravity of the issue in question. Also, the number of pages for the procurement of defense equipment was increased, and extensive details on the costs of research and development of equipment were explained. One is not quite clear about the intentions behind giving such details. The points mentioned in the White Paper are likely to be used for informed debates in the Diet and other places. The Abe administration is likely to take up soon for discussion in the Diet the issue of right to collective self-defence and attacking enemy bases. The next logical steps for the government could be to create defensive structure and formulate legislation to address the security threats described in the White Paper. The paper also refers to the unresolved dispute over Russia-held islands that Japan has wanted back since the end of World War II.

( The writer, Dr Rajaram Panda, is a Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese, Korean and Northeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Email:

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