Japan moves to unshackle its military as storm clouds gather over Asia

December 20, 2013

The Japanese and Indian navies are in the second of four days of joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal, an event which neatly demonstrates the gathering storm of military preparations rumbling over Asia.

The exercise is small as these things go. It involves only two destroyers from the Japanese navy and three of India’s most modern missile-equipped warships.

It is also only the second joint exercises held by the two navies. The first was in June 2012.

However, the symbolism is huge and will be studied closely by the country that is the object of the growing military and, indeed, economic co-operation between Tokyo and New Delhi: China.

India and Japan are being drawn together in response to China’s vigorous expansion and modernisation of its navy in the last 20 years. The evident purpose of Beijing’s desire for a blue water navy is to project power overseas and give muscle to its many territorial claims in the East China and South China seas.

Japan is in the midst of an often-dangerous shoving match with the Chinese navy and airforce over Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing claims to own and calls the Diaoyu Islands.

India, meanwhile, has a fistful of territorial disputes with China in the Himalayas. Indian companies are also heavily involved with Vietnam in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. Beijing claims much of the territory and has dispatched ships to harass the exploration vessels as well as threatening sanctions against the oil companies.

New Delhi also sees Beijing trying to contain India’s potent navy by the so-called “string of pearls” alliances with India’s neighbours.

China is fostering relations with Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which may allow his warships to use ports in those countries when necessary.

The Indo-Japanese naval exercise comes in the same week as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took major steps toward his avowed intention of reversing the so-called “pacifist constitution” forced on Japan by the victories allies after the Second World War.

This constitution severely limits the operations in which Japan’s military can be used. In essence, Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen can only be deployed for the defence of Japan.

These rules, embodied in Article 9 of the constitution, have severely constrained Japan’s abilities to support its allies, especially the United States, and even limited the role its military can play in United Nations operations.

Although some of these rules have been bent or circumvented in recent years, Prime Minister Abe took a major step in February towards Japan being legally able to follow more assertive defence policies when he established the country’s first National Security Council (NSC).

The NSC, modelled on U.S. and British counterparts, is chaired by the Prime Minister and members include the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the ministers of defence and foreign affairs.

This is the first time since the Second World War that Japan has had a body to oversee and co-ordinate national security. The first major piece of work by the NSC was to draw up a revised defence doctrine for Japan, and this was endorsed by the entire cabinet this week.

The fundamental philosophical shift driving the changes is from “active pacifism” to “active contributions for ensuring global peace and security.”

To this end, Japan will enhance its own already formidable defence forces, strengthen it military alliance with Washington and other Pacific-region allies such as Australia and Canada, co-operate in the building of international institutions bolstering peace and security.

In support of this new view of the purpose of its military, Japan will establish a Marine Corps, usually seen as the aggressive arm of infantry formations. However, the NSC says the Japanese marines will be trained to engage in amphibious operations, such as the “recapturing of remote islands.” There was no need to refer directly to the Senkakus.

The new policy also aims to improve cyber-defence, bolster Japan’s intelligence capabilities, and will remove the ban on arms exports, except to communist countries or those under UN embargoes.

The next step for Abe, probably early next year, will be to remove the ban on Japanese forces aiding allies who are under attack or the threat of it.

The existence of this ban has always caused the U.S. and other allies to wonder about the dependability of Japan in a crisis, and its removal has been promoted by Washington and Abe’s supporters for many years.

Abe has a strong majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament, and although his plans will be criticised and opposed by those who fear a return to the militarist policies of early last century, they will not be blocked.

Since returning to power in December 2012 as head of the Liberal Democratic Party government, Abe has tried to ensure public support by concentrating on reviving Japan’s economy, which has been in the doldrums since the early 1990s.

Although the shift away from constitutionally entrenched pacifism has dented Abe’s popularity, that must be balanced against Japanese anxiety about China. A recent poll found that 78 per cent of Japanese believe China poses a military threat to Japan.

Japan’s relations with China have been on a downward slide for several years. Beijing has promoted anti-Japanese nationalism, and even stage-managed anti-Japanese demonstrations, as part of a campaign to divert public attention from the failing legitimacy of the communist one-party state over 60 years after its founding.

Japanese businesses have taken the hint. There was a nearly 11 per cent decline in Japan-China trade in the first half of this year, and Japan’s investment in China dropped by 37 per cent in the first nine months of 2013.

At the same time, China’s investment in the 10 countries of Southeast Asia rose by 22 per cent in the first six months of 2013, much of it concentrated in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, where overall investment rose by 120 per cent over the first half of 2012.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com