Today, the 17th of December, the Japanese government has released its new national security strategy. It includes commitments to increase military spending and investment in new technologies, largely aimed at countering China’s growing maritime power and the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. A more robust military posture is also a cornerstone of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right wing nationalist politics, something that is destined to prove controversial both within Japan, and also in the wider region, with China and both Koreas certain to react with hostility to any perceived return to ‘Japanese militarism’.
Though co-operation with the United States (which guarantees Japan’s military security) seems likely to remain the primary feature of Japan’s defensive posture for the foreseeable future, moves towards more independence and assertiveness seem also seem likely to increase over coming years. The new national security strategy would help provide for this, with a 5% spending increase allowing for the purchase of more equipment for Japan’s already modern military. This will apparently include new naval destroyers, surveillance drones, fighter aircraft and Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. A new assault force (essentially a marine corps) equipped with amphibious landing craft, will also be created.
Much of this development is in response to the increasingly assertive presence of the Chinese military in the region, particularly in the maritime sphere. As China pursues a blue water navy, it is investing extremely heavily in new warships in order to expand it’s control in East Asian waters. This included, last year, the completion of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Though the Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier and not state of the art, it is allowing the Chinese to develop and train personnel for deployment on their own indigenously built aircraft carriers, which are scheduled to begin entering active service around 2020.
China’s increasingly assertive role has manifested in continuing tensions over a collection of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan and known as the Senkakus (though called the Diaoyu by China). These islands are a continuing flashpoint between the two nations, both as a source of national pride and also because of the rich natural resources and fishing fields in the area. Recently, China has unilaterally expanded its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) to cover a large swathe of the East China sea, a move that has provoked criticism from Japan, South Korea and the United States. It is worth noting that Japan’s own ADIZ is also of a similar size, and has also been expanded in a similar fashion in the past. Japan is also engaged in a territorial dispute over islands controlled by South Korea, as well as a long running dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories. Japan is also within missile range of North Korea, and feels threatened by its nuclear program and potentially destabilising actions.
Any Japanese re-militarisation would prove an extremely controversial affair. The legacy of the Second World War remains strong in East Asia, with the Chinese and Korean populace hostile to a Japan that they feel often refuses to face up to its wartime behaviour, particularly involving the usage of comfort women (native peoples forced into prostitution for the Japanese armed forces). Prime Minister Abe’s stringent nationalism is particularly marked – he has been ambivalent about admitting the war crimes committed by the Japanese armed forces, has denied the coercive role of the military in procuring comfort women, and has openly questioned whether Japan should be defined an ‘aggressor’ during the war, arguing school books should give a more positive view of Japan’s wartime role and behaviour.
Within Japan, Abe’s right wing nationalism is also controversial. A recent implementation of a hard-line new state secrets law promoted demonstrations in Tokyo, while Abe’s desire to overturn Japan’s pacifist constitution is well known. It would be difficult for Abe to do this currently, as he would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament as well as a successful referendum. Many on the Japanese left are apparently concerned that Abe is using the threat of a rising China to ‘re-militarise through the back door’ and to meet his own nationalist aims as opposed to external threats.
Despite frequent sabre rattling between China, both Koreas and Japan over their various disagreements and claims in the region, an imminent deterioration in East Asian stability is still very unlikely. However, the long term strategic issues in the region posed by a rising China, a US suffering from a stretched defence budget and declining influence, a remilitarised and more aggressive Japan and an unpredictable North Korea are extremely serious. Any conflict in the region would also have serious economic consequences world-wide, as China, Japan and South Korea are all major players in the global economy.