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Japan

For military muscle

Print edition : Feb 01, 2019 T+T-
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks before reviewing troops of the Japan Self-Defence Forces at Asaka, Japan, on October 14, 2018.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks before reviewing troops of the Japan Self-Defence Forces at Asaka, Japan, on October 14, 2018.

U.S. military F-35B fighter jet lands aboard the amphibious assault ship, Wasp, during an exercise in the western Pacific. Japan’s new national defence plan, approved on December 18, 2018, calls for refitting an existing helicopter carrier into one that can deploy expensive F-35B fighters capable of short take-offs and vertical landings.

U.S. military F-35B fighter jet lands aboard the amphibious assault ship, Wasp, during an exercise in the western Pacific. Japan’s new national defence plan, approved on December 18, 2018, calls for refitting an existing helicopter carrier into one that can deploy expensive F-35B fighters capable of short take-offs and vertical landings.

A protest at Henoko on the southern island of Okinawa on December 14, 2018. Japan started reclamation work at a disputed U.S. military base relocation site on Okinawa despite fierce local opposition.

A protest at Henoko on the southern island of Okinawa on December 14, 2018. Japan started reclamation work at a disputed U.S. military base relocation site on Okinawa despite fierce local opposition.

Japan increases its military spending steeply to keep pace with China’s growing military might and avoid a trade war with the U.S.

On December 18, the Japanese government announced a dramatic increase in its defence spending. The right-wing government of Shinzo Abe has earmarked a whopping $47 billion for 2019 under the National Defence Program Guidelines (NDPG) as it tries to keep pace with China’s growing military might. An additional midterm defence plan set aside another $240 billion to be spent in the next five years. The Japan Self-Defence Forces are now transiting formally into a full-fledged army ready for offensive and defensive duties. Japan still has a pacifist Constitution, and the majority of the people are against the idea of their army waging wars in foreign climes.

Recapturing Japan’s past military glory has been a long-cherished dream of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. To justify the steepest increase so far in its military budget, the Japanese government has cited its “strong concerns” about the growing footprints of the Chinese military in the region and the continuing threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes. Russia is also mentioned as a threat in the statement. The NDPG stated that the United States was the most powerful nation in the world and that Japan “recognises the importance of the strategic competition with both China and Russia as they challenge the regional order”. The statement emphasised that strengthening relations with Washington was all the more important as the two countries had shared values and common strategic interests.

Japan plans to purchase 147 F-35A stealth jets and advanced missile defence systems such as the Aegis Ashore land-based missile interceptor system and has announced that it will convert its two Izumo-class helicopter carrier ships into full-fledged aircraft carriers. Forty-two of the F-35 planes it plans to buy will be used on aircraft carriers. Japan plans to equip the F-35s with long-range cruise missiles, which can hit targets at a distance of 900 kilometres. These missiles, according to the U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin, have the ability to destroy high-level targets while keeping the aircraft safely out of range. Japan is also planning to manufacture hypersonic missiles capable of evading radar.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution specifically prohibits its army from using weapons that can help it wage war on a country. Aircraft carriers and offensive missile systems are obviously not for defensive purposes only. The people and the governments of the region have not forgotten that aircraft carriers played a crucial role in the Second World War when a militaristic government was in power in Tokyo. Japan already has a potent submarine force. The U.S. in fact has been urging Japan to build more aircraft carriers to keep pace with the rapidly expanding Chinese navy.

The Donald Trump administration will be happy with Japan’s decision to purchase billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry and pull its weight militarily as the U.S. seeks to confront China in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. The U.S. has been complaining about the huge trade deficit with Japan. Trump’s lament since taking over has been that the U.S.’ allies are not spending enough on their defence.

According to Akira Kato, a Japanese academic who specialises in defence studies, the growing military budget of his country is “directly aimed to counter China’s military threat” and also is part of Japan’s efforts to avoid a trade war with the U.S. Some American military commentators have gone to the extent of saying that Tokyo’s decision is mainly motivated by the desire to appease Washington and ease pressure from the Trump administration when trade negotiations take place later this year.

The Japanese Defence Ministry’s White Paper released in November claimed that it was China’s recent activities that motivated Japan’s massive increase in defence spending. It said that China’s “rapid military modernisation and enhancement of operational capabilities, its unilateral escalation of action in areas around Japan, the lack of transparency in its military build-up, presents a strong security concern for the region, including Japan and the international community”.

U.S.’ junior partner

The Japanese government continues to play the role of the U.S.’ junior partner in the region as Washington is desperately trying to stave off the inevitable rise of China as the next superpower. As part of the Pentagon’s strategy to box in China, Trump signed a law in the first week of January known as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. According to the Act, the U.S. will reaffirm its security commitment to its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the provisions of the Act, Washington is committed to spend $1.5 billion annually to improve its regional military presence and to build security partnerships in South-East Asia.

The Act is also seen as another of the U.S.’ moves against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). All South-East Asian nations have warmly embraced the BRI. Japan and India are the only notable standouts so far. During his recent visit to China, Abe, however hinted that Japan may soon participate in the BRI. Japanese companies are losing out on lucrative bids for the massive infrastructure projects being built under the BRI.

‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy

Part of the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy will be to conduct more “freedom of navigation” exercises with its allies in the East and South China Seas. As of now, Japan and Australia are the only two U.S. allies in the region to have joined in these exercises. In November, the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, issued a warning that the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China might force South-East Asian nations to choose between the two.

Japan’s decision to hike its defence budget comes at a time of rising tensions in the East Asian region. The U.S. Navy and Air Force have been conducting increasingly aggressive patrols in the South China Sea. In September last year, a Japanese submarine was also involved in war games with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. Washington wants to demonstrate to the world that it still calls the shots in the South China Sea. The Trump administration is working overtime to persuade South-East Asian nations that have maritime territorial disputes with China to up the ante diplomatically and militarily with Beijing. Most of the countries in the region have, however, stayed clear of a full-fledged military embrace with the U.S. and have opted for a negotiated settlement of their maritime disputes with China.

Tensions are also rising along the Taiwan Strait. Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at the beginning of the year, said that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland was “inevitable”. He said that reunification was a “historical task” that the Chinese nation had to fulfil. “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures,” Xi said. Addressing top officials of China’s Central Military Commission, he said that the armed forces should be ready for war. “All military units must correctly understand major national security and development trends, and strengthen their sense of unexpected hardship, crisis and battle,” Xi said.

Japan and China are also locked in a territorial dispute of their own over a small group of islands located in the East China Sea. The Chinese call them Diaoyu, and the Japanese name for the islands is Senkaku. It is currently under the control of Japan. The territorial dispute, which Japan has with Russia over the Kuriles, is yet to be resolved. These islands were occupied by Russia at the end of the Second World War. Japan has refused to sign a peace treaty with Russia mainly because of this territorial dispute.

China’s reaction

Reacting to the Japanese defence budget, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticised the Abe government for making “irresponsible remarks” about China’s military preparedness. “For historical reasons, Japan’s movements in the military security field have greatly concerned its Asian neighbours and the international community,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. He was alluding to the brutal occupation of China, Korea and South-East Asia by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during the Second World War.

South Korea, which is a close military ally of the U.S., was also not happy with Japan’s ambitious plans for its military. The South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Japan’s defence policy should “contribute to peace and stability in the region under the spirit of the pacifist constitution”.

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