23 Apr 2014 – The need for greater territory and island protection were the principle components behind the Japanese government’s announcement to spend an increased 23.97 trillion yen ($239bn) on defence over the next five years. Japan’s decision to raise the level of defence spending is hardly surprising given a rising number of threats and the current state of its relationships with China, Russia and other South East Asia nations including South Korea. However does the increased level of spending on defence signal too that Japan’s government could be preparing the nation to finally ditch the pacifist stance written into law since it surrendered to the allies in 1945?
In a speech to the DAVOS World Economic Forum in January Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe compared the tensions between China and Japan to the rivalry that existed between the German and British empires a hundred years ago. He used the same speech to condemn China’s military build-up for destabilising the region warning of “inadvertent conflict” and that as things looked then there was no “explicit roadmap” to resolve the current dispute. Not that Japan has ever been close to either of its big neighbours, China and Russia, but it does now seem that the chances of a diplomatic solution to territorial disputes has receded into oblivion.
Whilst Article 9 of the Japan’s constitution prevents its well-prepared ‘Self-Defense Force’ from engaging in any form of combat operation or training with other nations, it does not prevent Japan from holding substantial levels of capability. In terms of constitutional revision time may not necessarily be a healer and Article 9 is likely to remain on the statute until either Japan is very seriously threatened or that a decision is taken to re-write a significant part of the constitution. Until then we may assume that the Abe Government will retain exceptionally strong links with the US on all matters relating to defence but we should not ignore the increasingly loud noises from Prime Minister Abe that there is a growing desire to dump the pacifist stance.
Japan is in no mood to be bullied and with President Obama in Tokyo today for talks with the Japanese government on a range of issues, the current round of Chinese diplomacy and the future military procurement intentions will be high on the agenda.
When the Japanese government announced its intention to raise the five-year defence budget plan it became clear that a number of new platforms where being lined up for purchase. More military fast jets, over and above the number already confirmed, are already being targeted along with a number of unmanned aerial vehicles, more naval destroyers, amphibious vehicles and a broad spectrum of other capabilities – especially amphibious ones. In addition my current understanding is that the Abe government is potentially looking to acquire around 17 V-22 Osprey ‘Tiltrotor’ aircraft from Boeing plus an additional 28 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft from Lockheed Martin (these adding to the 42 F-35A aircraft the country agreed to acquire in 2012 as replacement aircraft for the large ageing fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4’s).
At the heart of the current diplomatic spat is China’s claims to uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. However Japan is not alone among countries in Far and South East Asia who feel threatened; Australia is also modernising its defence capability and has just confirmed an intention to acquire 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft from Lockheed Martin. While the US pivot in defence priorities signalled by President Obama almost three years ago surprised some, I believe the policy may yet be fully vindicated.
Surrounded by sea and vulnerable to air attacks, Japan has little choice but to raise it game in defence but whether the nation is yet ready to abandon its long-standing pacifist stance is questionable. Thankfully while Japan cannot act as an aggressor it can defend itself; with 24 destroyers, 19 frigates and destroyer escorts, 15 attack submarines and 29 mine countermeasure vessels the country enjoys a rich maritime defence capability (albeit one that is not imbued with the latest technological advances). In terms of combat air power, the country’s air force is based around its large existing fleet of F-4 and F-15 aircraft plus the F-2 (this is based on the F-16). Before any F-35 JSF aircraft are added to its arsenal the country possesses almost 300 combat jets; making Japan the strongest and largest player in the South East Asia region outside of China itself.
What is going on in Ukraine and the threats appertaining to Japan are object lessons for why the West must not take its eye off the need to retain adequate levels of defence capability. The situation in South East Asia is currently very unstable and I suspect that it may not be that long before the situation gets even worse. We must hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory
Tel: 07710 779785