Tokyo’s new defense policy, with China in mind

Using his time on the world stage, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has launched a new round of diplomatic offensive against China.

Addressing the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26, Abe criticized an “immediate neighbor” for increasing its military budget by more than 10 percent annually. Abe also told a news conference in New York that “the intrusions by Chinese government vessels in our territorial waters are continuing, to our regret. However, Japan will not make a concession on our territorial sovereignty.”

Tokyo is locked in a fierce territorial dispute with Beijing over a group of East China Sea islets (Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese). In September 2012, the Abe administration decided to “nationalize” these disputed, uninhabited islands, led to a new round of escalating tension between Japan and China. Then in July 2013, Tokyo announced the establishment of a new cabinet council to strengthen the administration of 400-or-so remote islands in the East China Sea and to further protect these areas from China’s nonstop maritime activities in the surrounding waters.

In response to China’s “ballooning military spending,” Prime Minister Abe has vowed to boost Japan’s security role in East Asia, stating that the officially pacifist nation should no longer be a “weak link” in the world. “Japan should not be the weak link in the regional and global security framework where the United States plays a leading role,” Abe declared at the Hudson Institute in New York, “Japan is one of the world’s most mature democracies. Thus, we must be a net contributor to the provision of the world security. And we will. Japan will contribute to the peace and stability of the region and the world more proactively than before.”

Abe, who is in a stronger political position than any Japanese prime minister in more than two decades, also pledges to push forward with his plan to strengthen Japan’s defence in what he sees as an increasingly “insecure environment.” In a speech opening the new session of Japanese parliament on Oct. 15, Abe told Japnese Diet members that he wishes to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas – a reversal of the stance of previous administrations – by reinterpreting the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution. “Japan can no longer protect its own peace without actively fulfilling its responsibility to global peace and stability,” declared Abe, “Japan should be proud to have been a pacifist state since the end of the World War II, but it is time to be realistic now.”

What Abe wants is a new policy of “Active Pacifism” that will allow a re-named Japanese military to operate abroad with Japan’s allies. And Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera has made it clear that it is time for Japam to have the “right” to a military capable of pre-emptive strikes against an “imminent threat.”

Under the new “Actitve Pacifism,” the Japanese defence force is set to have its biggest budget increase in 22 years. “Tokyo,” reports German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle,”has committed itself to purchasing the F-35 interceptor to put it ahead of anything the Chinese air forces can deploy. The military is also putting the Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft through its paces. The feasibility of deploying Global Hawk remotely piloted drones is also being considered as early as 2015, while steps are already under way to create a new unit based closely on the U.S. Marines to better defend remote islands.”

Jun Okumura, a military analyst at the Eurasia Group, points out the ongoing shift in Japan’s defense policy, “Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a gradual shift from an emphasis on ground forces to protect the mainland from a conventional invasion by the Soviet Union to dealing with a threat from China that would come by way of Japan’s southern islands.”

The new direction in the Japanese defense policy represents a domestic consensus in Japan on the threat to Japanese national interest from China’s growing military power and its increasing assertiveness. As Japan’s defense spending surges to its highest since the Cold War, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Japan to patch up its relationship with China.

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.