TOKYO --- Until a few years ago, the idea of an international arms fair in Japan would have struck many as ludicrous. Japanese troops have not fired a weapon in war since the nation’s once-powerful military was defanged by the US occupation in 1945. Japan’s corporate sector has more or less observed a total ban on weapons exports since the 1970s. Universities shun military research.
Yet, in another sign that it is slipping its pacifist moorings, Japan this month played host to the third Maritime Systems and Technologies (Mast) conference on Asian defence. Uniformed officers rubbed shoulders with diplomats and industry leaders from some of the world’s top military contractors. Japan’s leading domestic defence contractors all had their own booths.
Three years ago, Japanese firms debuted at the Paris-based Eurosatory, one of the planet’s biggest defence and security industry trade shows. Among the stalls for tanks, drones, helicopters and riot vehicles were 13 Japanese companies, including the country’s largest military contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, along with Kawasaki Steel, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Toshiba and NEC.
The starting gun for these changes was sounded by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in 2013. Abe told the United Nations that Japan will “newly bear” the flag of “proactive pacifism”, an unintentionally Orwellian-sounding phrase that stands in for a potentially more controversial one: confronting rising China. A year later, Abe ended the four-decade ban on selling weapons and military hardware.
In 2015, the government challenged the sanctity of Japan’s post-war pacifism by passing legislation reinterpreting the war-renouncing constitution, written by the Americans. The purpose was to allow Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to become a more forceful partner to America. A secondary aim of these policy changes is to increase sales of military equipment abroad, especially in East Asia, where China’s footprint is expanding.
Although rhetorically Abe insists Japan’s door for dialogue with Beijing is open, he increasingly appears to favour a more aggressive approach that hews close to the American line in Asia and builds military and technical alliances to counterbalance China’s rise. “Co-operation in military equipment must be part of Japan’s proactive peace strategies,” he said.
The region around the South China Sea has become a mass of competing claims and potential flashpoints as China’s reach grows. Japan has begun discussing sharing military technology and kit with the Philippines, Vietnam and other regional powers. Japan’s “high-quality equipment” will contribute to the defence of the region, said Hideaki Watanabe, head of the defence ministry’s Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency.
Japan’s constitution prohibits the maintenance of land, sea or air forces, though the SDF has a larger navy than France and Britain combined, over 1,600 aircraft and four large flat-topped vessels that China calls “quasi-aircraft carriers”. The SDF itself has about 227,000 personnel. Under Abe, the government has passed a series of record defence budgets, culminating with ¥5.13 trillion for fiscal 2017.
For years, Japanese contractors such as Mitsubishi Heavy and Kawasaki Steel have made small numbers of hugely expensive submarines, tanks, fighters and other weapons for a single customer – the SDF. The price tag for a single Soryu, the world’s largest diesel submarine, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for example, is reportedly a whopping $2 billion. (end of excerpt)
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