Right in front of rival Russia, Japan has opened up to the media the shooting drills of its humbly named Self-Defense Force in a display of public firepower that coincides with a recent escalation of Chinese and Russian military movements around Japanese territory. .
The exercises, which foreign journalists rarely have the opportunity to attend, will continue for nine days and will include approximately 1,300 soldiers from the Land Self-Defense Force. On Monday, as hundreds of soldiers cheered on the sidelines and waved unit flags, rows of tanks fired at targets believed to represent enemy missiles or armored vehicles.
The exercises shed light on a fascinating and easy to miss point. Japan, despite an officially pacifist constitution written when memories of its outbreak of WWII were still fresh – and painful – has an army that shames all nations except a few.
And, with a host of threats lurking in Northeast Asia, its hawkish leaders are hungry for more.
It’s not an easy sale. In a nation still vilified by many of its neighbors for its past military actions, and where internal pacifism is high, any military build-up is controversial.
Japan has focused on its defensive capabilities and carefully avoids using the word “military” for its troops. But as it seeks to defend its territorial and military interests against an authoritarian China, North Korea and Russia, Tokyo officials are pushing citizens to put aside widespread unease over a stronger role for the military and to support the increase in defense spending.
As it stands, tens of billions of dollars each year have built an arsenal of nearly 1,000 warplanes and dozens of destroyers and submarines. Japanese forces rival those of Britain and France, and show no signs of slowing down in pursuit of the best equipment and weapons money can buy.
Not everyone agrees with this accumulation. Critics, both neighbors and at home, urge Tokyo to learn from its past and withdraw from military expansion.
There is also a national distrust of nuclear weapons. Japan, the only country to drop atomic bombs during the war, has no nuclear deterrent force, unlike other major world armies, and relies on the so-called US nuclear umbrella.
Supporters of the new military muscle flex, however, say the expansion is timely and crucial for the Japanese alliance with Washington.
China and Russia have stepped up military cooperation in recent years in an attempt to counter the growth of U.S.-led regional partnerships.
In October, a fleet of five Chinese and Russian warships surrounded Japan as they crossed the Pacific to the East China Sea. Last month, their fighter jets flew together near Japanese airspace, jamming Japanese fighter jets. In fiscal 2020 through March, Japanese fighters rushed more than 700 times – two-thirds against Chinese warplanes, the rest mostly against Russians – the Defense Ministry said.
The Russian military has also recently deployed coastal defense missile systems, the Bastion, near the disputed islands off the north coast of Hokkaido.
Japan was disarmed after its defeat in World War II. But a month after the start of the Korean War in 1950, the US occupation forces in Japan created a de facto lightly armed 75,000-strong army called the National Police Reserve. The Self-Defense Force, the country’s current army, was founded in 1954.
Today, Japan is ranked fifth in the world in terms of overall military power after the United States, Russia, China and India, and its defense budget is ranked sixth in the 2021 ranking of 140 countries. by the Global Firepower rating site.
During the more than eight-year reign of former Archconservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which ended a year ago, Japan has dramatically expanded its military role and budget. Abe also watered down Article 9 of the constitution renouncing war in 2015, allowing Japan to stand up for the United States and other partner countries.
Japan quickly stepped up its military role in its alliance with Washington and increased its purchases of expensive American weapons and equipment, including fighter jets and missile interceptors.
“Japan faces different risks from multiple fronts,” said defense expert Heigo Sato, a professor at the Institute for Global Studies at Takushoku University in Tokyo.
These risks include North Korea’s increased willingness to test high-powered missiles and other weapons, provocations by armed Chinese fishing boats and coast guards, and Russia’s deployment of missiles and weapons. naval forces.
One of the North Korean missiles flew over Hokkaido, landing in the Pacific in 2017. In September, another fell in the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone northwest of Japan.
Under a bilateral security pact, Japan hosts around 50,000 US troops, primarily on the southern island of Okinawa, which, along with Japanese units in Hokkaido, are strategically crucial to the US presence in the Pacific.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, said during his first troop review that he would consider “all options,” including possibly the continuation of preemptive strike capabilities to “further increase power. defense of Japan ”- a question that divides opponents. violates the constitution.
Japan has more than 900 fighter jets, 48 destroyers, including eight Aegis missile combat systems, and 20 submarines. It goes beyond Great Britain, Germany and Italy. Japan is also purchasing 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs, making it the largest user of American stealth fighters outside of the United States, where 353 are to be deployed.
One of Japan’s biggest worries is the increase in China’s naval activity, including an aircraft carrier that has been repeatedly spotted off the southern coast of Japan.
Japan has traditionally maintained a defense budget cap of 1% of its GDP, although in recent years the country has faced calls from Washington to spend more.
Kishida says he’s ready to double the cap to the NATO standard of 2%.
As a first step, his cabinet recently approved a supplementary budget of 770 billion yen ($ 6.8 billion) for the fiscal year to accelerate missile defense and reconnaissance activities around the territorial seas and the l airspace, and to strengthen mobility and emergency responses to defend its remote from China. Islands of the Sea. That would bring total defense spending for 2021 to 6.1 trillion yen ($ 53.2 billion), up 15 percent from the previous year and 1.09 percent of GDP. from Japan.
Experts say an increase in the defense budget is the price Japan must pay now to close a deficit for much of the postwar period, when the country prioritized economic growth over security. national.
As China plays hard in the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan has emerged as a regional flashpoint, with Japan, the United States and other democracies developing closer ties with the autonomous island that Beijing sees as a renegade territory to be united by force if necessary.
China’s build-up of military installations in the South China Sea has heightened concerns for Tokyo in the East China Sea, where the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu. China sent a fleet of armed coastguard boats to circle them regularly and to enter and exit waters claimed by the Japanese, sometimes chasing Japanese fishing boats into the area.
Japan is deploying PAC3 surface-to-air missile interceptors to its westernmost island of Yonaguni, which is only 110 kilometers (68 miles) east of Taiwan.
Partly due to a relative decline in America’s global influence, Japan has expanded its military partnerships and joint exercises beyond its alliance with the United States, notably with Australia, Canada , Great Britain, France and other European countries, as well as within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Japan is also cooperating with NATO.
Despite the government’s argument that more is needed, the rapid expansion of Japan’s defense capabilities and costs is raising concerns nationally.
“Although defense policy should respond flexibly to changes in the national security environment, a booming defense budget could misunderstand neighboring countries that Japan is emerging as a military power and accelerate a arms race, ”Tokyo Shimbun newspaper said in a recent editorial. .
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi