Two important developments took place in Japan in August – release of annual defence white paper ‘Defence of Japan 2016’, and the appointment of right-wing leader Tomomi Inada as the new defence minister following the cabinet reshuffle.
Looking at these two developments in the backdrop of the July upper house election, which provided impetus to the pro-revision elements , the latest ballistic missile launch by North Korea, which fell inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Sea of Japan, and the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on South China Sea appears to have infused a fresh momentum to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda of redefining the Japanese security outlook, a process initiated after he assumed power in late 2012.
Furthering the premise of an increasingly severe security environment around Japan, with “destabilising factors becoming more tangible and acute”, the latest defence white paper has accorded relatively more space to Japan’s ‘strong concerns’ over China’s ‘active maritime expansion’ as well as progress in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programme, compared to the previous white paper.
It has also articulated the criticality of the Legislation for Peace and Security, which came into effect in March 2016, in enhancing deterrence, reinforcing the Japan-US alliance, security cooperation with other nations within the framework of Proactive Contribution to Peace, policy initiatives and measures aimed at strengthening defence industry and boosting the development of defence technology.
Notably, the 2016 white paper upgraded the Japanese threat perception vis-à-vis China by replacing ‘concern’ with ‘strong concern’ over what Tokyo regards as China’s ‘heavy-handed’ attitude in the maritime and airspace. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan has consistently critiqued China’s unilateral claims and effort at forcefully changing the status quo. Since September 2012, Japanese foreign ministry has claimed that Chinese ships have been traversing the waters adjoining the Senkaku Islands more frequently.
Following the permanent court of arbitration’s recent ruling on the South China Sea, Japan has been emphasising, both individually and within trilateral frameworks such as the Japan-US-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, the significance of safeguarding the rules-based maritime order including in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
In recent weeks, Japan has registered strong protest against the increasing number of Chinese ships entering into the waters around the Senkaku Islands.7 Earlier in June, defence ministry claimed that a Jiangkai I-class frigate and a Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessel of the Chinese Navy had entered the Japanese contiguous zone on separate occasions. Furthermore, as stated in the white paper, Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF) had to scramble fighter aircraft 571 times against Chinese jets. In fact, while outlining the Japanese expectations, the 2016 white paper urges Beijing to act responsibly and conform to the international rules.
Regarding the defence of remote islands, Japanese strategy has been to focus on positioning units, intensifying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in peacetime and acquiring maritime and air superiority.9 In January this year, Japan established the ninth Air Wing at its Naha Air Base to further enhance its defence posture in the south-western region. Two F-15 fighter squadrons are now hosted by this base.
Two months later, in March, a coast observation unit was instituted at Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited island of the country. Japan further plans to create an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, equipped with fixed wing patrol aircrafts (P-1) and patrol helicopters (SH-60K) in its south-western region. In addition, to facilitate transportation and deployment of units, Japan plans to focus on improving Osumi class transport LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) and introducing V-22 Ospreys.
Meanwhile, summarising the key aspects of the latest white paper, Japan’s former Defence Minister Gen. Nakatani stated at a press conference held on August 02, just a day before he was replaced by Inada, that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development programme pose “a grave and imminent threat to the security not only of Japan but also of the region surrounding the country and the international community.” The 2016 white paper clearly referred to the technological sophistication achieved by North Korea and argued that it is likely to have succeeded in miniaturising its nuclear weapons and building nuclear warheads.
The white paper noted that North Korea has “shown readiness to acquire technologies to make practical use of new intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles and make them more sophisticated, presenting serious concerns for Japan and other relevant countries.” Given the situation, Japan is advancing its capabilities to intercept and defend against ballistic missiles. It is also engaged in joint research with the US on developing modified types of SM-3 and PAC-3. As regards SM-3 Block IIA, it is in its final stages and is expected to be complete by 2017.
Alliance with the US however remains the ‘cornerstone’ of the Japanese security. The revised Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation, which constitutes the nucleus of the security alliance, has added qualitative depth to the security partnership. The 2016 white paper argues that the alliance serves as a ‘public good’ that caters to the goal of the Asia-Pacific stability. Today, the need to shoulder greater responsibility and to sustain the alliance with the US is more pressing for Japan than ever before owing to the geo-political complexity arising from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s push for a new model of great power relations with the US.
Meanwhile, in view of the treaty obligation, the fear of possible entrapment in the East China Sea is also very much prevalent among a section of the US strategic community. This is in addition to the budgetary constraints which will shape the future US commitment towards the region.
At the regional level, both China and South Korea have reacted sharply to the Japanese defence white paper. Chinese defence ministry spokesperson has described the white paper as “full of lousy clichés”, “full of malice” and “irresponsible remarks” against China. Expressing “strong dissatisfaction” and “resolute opposition”, the spokesperson alleged that the white paper deliberately “hypes up the East and South China Sea issues” in order to “sow discord” among China’s neighbours. It was categorically stated that “the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is never a problem”.
The spokesperson denied that China is “changing the status quo in the South China Sea by relying on its strength”. With regard to contesting claims over parts of the East China Sea, the Chinese spokesperson asserted that Beijing’s military actions are “absolutely based on the indisputable fact that the Diaoyu Dao belongs to China.”
Over the years, China has claimed that Abe has engineered a China threat theory to validate his militarist drive among the Japanese electorate. Meanwhile, South Korea too has registered a strong protest against Japanese claims over the sovereignty of Dokdo/Takeshima Islands in its annual defence white paper. South Korean defence ministry had summoned the Japanese defence attaché in Seoul and underscored the need for Japan to undertake “corrective measures.”
It is to be noted that Japan had been laying claim over Dokdo Islands in its annual defence white papers since the Koizumi era. Both China and South Korea have urged Japan to reflect on history and make sincere attempts to build mutual trust and facilitate the strengthening of bilateral relations in the larger interest of peace and stability in the region.
Japan under Prime Minister Abe has certainly witnessed tectonic shifts in its post-war security policy: enabling limited exercise of collective self-defence, escalation in defence expenditure, reorganisation of security structures including establishment of institutions such as the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA), gearing up the R&D for achieving technological superiority and promoting security cooperation with other nations.
Japan’s ongoing effort at bolstering its deterrent capabilities is bound to raise anxiety levels in a region that has long suffered from complex historical baggage, intensified nationalism and persistent tension around fiercely contested geopolitical hotspots.
As the US expects Japan to assume greater responsibilities, a key challenge before Abe is to define in unambiguous terms the scope and limits of his vision of Japan as a Proactive Contributor to Peace – basically, maintaining the delicate balance between sharing greater burden in ensuring regional security as part of the long-standing alliance with the US, on one hand, and factoring in regional sensitivities as well as its own deeply fractured domestic constituencies, on the other.
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.