Japan’s military rise has been stealthy but strong and is increasingly concentrated on China’s perceived threat
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month that the Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest national crisis since World War II, it was widely overlooked that just weeks earlier his government passed by far the nation’s biggest defense budget since the end of that conflict.
The Japanese Diet, or parliament, approved a whopping US$46.3 billion defense budget on March 27, replete with earmarks for new hypersonic anti-ship missiles and helicopter carrier upgrades that will allow for the carrying of Lockheed Martin F-35B stealth fighters.
Defense-related spending in Japan has traditionally aimed chiefly to shield against neighboring North Korea’s nuclear threat. But the new ramped up spending is more clearly pointed towards an expansionist and increasingly assertive China, according to Japanese military insiders.
“It is China, not North Korea, that is the main concern,” said a Japanese official who requested anonymity.
As the US ramps up Covid-19 inspired threats against China and fears of a possible armed conflict mount, many strategic analysts have speculated that the Asia-Pacific’s strategic balance may have shifted in favor of China in sight of its fast rising military might and capabilities.
But that calculus often overlooks Japan’s stealthier military progress and the support it could provide the US in any potential conflict scenario, including through new weapons’ systems designed specifically to counter China’s new-age military assets including aircraft carriers.
Exhibit A is Japan’s new hypersonic anti-ship missile, which is specifically designed to pose a threat to Chinese aircraft carriers in the East and South China Seas. The missile, qualified as a “game changer” by the Japanese defense establishment, can glide at high speed and follow complex patterns, making it difficult to intercept with existing anti-missile shields.
When finally put into service, Japan will be the fourth country in the world after the United States, Russia and China to be armed with hypersonic gliding technology.
New spending will also go towards deploying Japan’s first real aircraft carriers since World War II as well as enhancing its space security, including through research into using electronic waves to disrupt what the budget terms “enemy communication systems”, likely meaning China’s.
Japan’s bolstered naval capacities will allow it to monitor or, from its main and outlying islands, even interdict Chinese naval forces from breaking out of the Yellow Sea into the Pacific in a potential conflict scenario.
In April 2018, moreover, Japan inaugurated its first marine unit since World War II. Serving under the military’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, it is ready for action anywhere in the immediate maritime region.
Some observers believe that the Japanese Navy is now as capable, and possibly superior, to any force in the Pacific including China.
Meanwhile, more China-oriented defense spending is on the way. Ministry of Defense forecasts show that the defense budget will increase to $48.4 billion in fiscal 2021 and rise to $56.7 billion by 2024.
That would appear to be conflict with Japan’s pacifist 1947 constitution, imposed on it by the US after its defeat in World War II to prevent a repeat of its invasions across the region.
Japan’s defense budget is still maintained at 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), a rule imposed in the late 1950s to prevent Japan from becoming a military superpower, an era when memories of the country’s wartime atrocities were still fresh.
But with China’s recent strong emergence as a military power, that budgetary limit looks increasingly anachronistic and could soon be lifted if defense hawks in Tokyo have their way.
By law, the former expansionist power’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are still not permitted to maintain armed forces with war potential. But since its formation in 1954, SDF has quietly grown into one of the world’s most powerful, if not understated, militaries.
Indeed, Japan now has the world’s eighth-largest military budget, trailing only the US, China, India, Russia, Saudi-Arabia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank.
The SDF now has nearly 250,000 active personnel and is equipped with the latest weaponry and technology procured mainly from the US. That includes a wide range of missiles, fighter planes and helicopters, as well as some of the world’s most technologically advanced diesel-electric submarines and indigenously built battle tanks.
Japan also maintains a permanent naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, where the US and China also maintain military bases.
Tokyo has come under pressure from US President Donald Trump to boost its budget and shoulder more financial responsibility for US-provided defense protection at Japan-situated bases, a rising point of contention between the allies.
In April last year, then defense minister Takeshi Iwaya declared that Japan is already spending 1.3% of GDP on defense when peacekeeping operations, coastguards and other security costs are tallied.
Tokyo has increased defense spending every year under Abe. Moreover, the constitution’s Article 9, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, was re-interpreted in 2014 to allow the SDF to defend its allies, including the US, if war is declared upon them.
That provision has enabled Japan to participate in future more actively in military operations outside its own boundaries, a trend that actually began in the early 1990s through the SDF’s participation in a UN intervention to establish peace in war-torn Cambodia.
Although the SDF’s mission was termed “non-combatant”, it was the first time since World War II that Japanese troops were seen outside the country. That deployment was followed by participation in a range of other UN peace-keeping operations in Africa and East Timor. In 2004, Japan sent troops to Iraq to assist the US-led reconstruction of that country.
That deployment was controversial even at home in Japan as it was the first time since World War II that Japan sent troops abroad except for participation in UN peace-keeping missions.
But Tokyo has since increasingly coordinated its defense policies with the US as well as India, two countries which are equally worried about China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific region.
Japan’s participation in Exercise Malabar, an annual tripartite naval exercise that involves partnership with the US and India since 2015, has demonstrated its naval prowess far from home and sent a muscular message to China, significantly at a time when Beijing extends its naval reach deeper into the Indian Ocean.
It is unclear whether Exercise Malabar will be conducted this year due to the Covid-19 crisis, but Japan’s defense relations with India have grown apace since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.
Japanese ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu, speaking to media after a visit to Japan by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in September last year, was clearly upbeat about the partnership, stating that the visit “is very significant to compare notes on various aspects of Japan-India defense cooperation, including some joint exercises [and] defense equipment cooperation…we are very excited to have a good discussion on opening the Pacific also. We are on the same page on various aspects of international affairs.”
That cooperation involves not only Exercise Malabar but also land-based maneuevers. In October and November last year, a joint exercise called “Dharma Guardian-2019” between India and Japan was conducted at the military’s Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Vairangte in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.
According to an official Indian statement at the time, the aim of the exercise was to carry out “joint training of troops in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in mountainous terrains.”
Why Japan would be interested in counterinsurgency operations in India was not made clear, but “the statement also said that, “Exercise Dharma Guardian-2019 will further cement the long-standing strategic ties between India and Japan.” Northeastern India is a volatile region where the border with China is still in dispute.
China has been quick to respond to what it perceives as an emerging US-led, Japan-supported anti-China axis in the region. China has two combat-ready aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, and a third is under construction. According to the US-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China plans to have five or six aircraft carriers by 2030.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, an English language newspaper under the communist party organ People’s Daily, wrote in an editorial on May 8 that China needs to expand its stockpile of nuclear warheads from 260 currently to 1,000. “Some people may call me a war monger”, Hu wrote, but “they should instead give this label to US politicians who are openly hostile to China…this is particularly true as we are facing an increasingly irrational US.”
Irrational or not, the US has stepped up its verbal attacks in China during the Covid-19 crisis with Trump even saying that the virus, which originated in China and as of May 10 had claimed 279,345 lives globally and 78,794 in the United States, is the “worst attack” ever on his country, more severe than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
Abe, on the other hand, has refrained from openly blaming China for the virus crisis. The Japanese government even donated medical supplies to China when it ran short of masks, gloves and other protective gear, and when the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama, China sent testing kits to Japan while Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated a million masks.
But such gestures of goodwill cannot hide the fact that new battle-lines are fast being drawn in the Indo-Pacific and that Japan will play an increasingly important role in the region’s post Covid-19 geo-strategic contests, regardless if the US becomes more or less committed to the region’s security.