(Asahi: December 1, 2015 – p. 4)
Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are expanding aid to help foreign militaries improve their capabilities and strengthen bilateral cooperation. The capacity-building assistance program is mainly targeted to Southeast Asian countries. Though it is limited to fields that are not directly linked to acts of combat, how much it should be expanded may become an issue to be addressed in the future.
On September 8, four officers from the Myanmar military visited the Maritime Self-Defense Force Underwater Medical Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. The purpose of their visit was to obtain firsthand knowledge about rescue operations at sea and submarine medicine. Myanmar does not have submarines yet, but it is reportedly planning to launch a project to set up a submarine unit in the near future. Submarine medicine is essential to the operation of submarines. The visitors toured a training facility for crew to escape from an underwater submarine and looked at a device used in the treatment of decompression sickness.
“Can our service members take a course in the SDF’s programs, such as diver training and decompression sickness treatment?” a lieutenant colonel from the Southeast Asian country asked. The SDF side did not expect such question to be raised and responded by pointing out the language barrier. Then the person revealed that China and India are offering to extend technological assistance, saying that “China says there should be no problem despite the language barrier so we want Japan to consider it.”
The capacity-building assistance program was included for the first time in the national defense program guidelines that the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan compiled in 2010. It was passed on to the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and was incorporated into its national security strategy.
The latest national defense program guidelines identify the capacity-building assistance program as an effective initiative to “stabilize the security environment and strengthen bilateral defense cooperation” and calls for enhancing its content and covering more countries.
The program has been thus far extended to a total of nine countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. “Capacity-building assistance is often talked about when we meet with senior military officers from Southeast Asian nations,” said a senior SDF official.
The SDF are emphasizing the capacity-building assistance program to counter China’s economic and military might.
The program was initially centered on road construction and maintenance of vehicles. But since China unilaterally designated an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, the SDF have been holding seminars on aviation safety and international air law in Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries that have territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. The objective is to build a common understanding on international rules for the sea and air.
Since 2012, Japan has been extending support to Vietnam, which imports submarines from Russia, in the field of submarine medicine. “The capacity-building assistance program is not aimed at containing China,” said a senior SDF official. But “we are building communication pipelines with neighboring countries so we can check China at any time,” the person added.
According to the Ministry of Defense, the capacity-building assistance program is not aimed at improving combat capabilities of partner nations. But there are not strict rules as to the content of the aid.
MOD customizes the program individually by gauging the capabilities of the SDF against requests from partner countries. It also plans to incorporate the program into official development aid in the future.
“The capacity-building assistance program selects countries that meet Japan’s national interests and could become an effective tool to strengthen bilateral ties through exchanges between military organizations,” said Masafumi Iida, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies. He believes that the SDF should increase its assistance for disaster relief operations, in which Japan has an edge, and work to gain the understanding of the Japanese public and international community in order to justify the program.
Meanwhile, Tetsuo Maeda, a military commentator, argues: “The Abe government attaches importance to strengthening bilateral defense cooperation in its security policy, but that stance has been hardly discussed at the Diet. It remains questionable how many people know about the capacity-building assistance program. This may cause only the onsite activities of this program to expand.”