Continuing the Discussion: Japanese Military Reforms
By: DANIEL BURKE & ELI TIRK
NANJING: Since 2015, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan has hinged his legacy on updating Japan’s as-of-yet unamended post-war constitution. Far from an imperialist warmonger, Abe has good reasons for wanting the Japanese constitution, currently pacifist, to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Force to help her allies overseas.
Reached after World War II, the Japanese – U.S. alliance has been beneficial for both countries: the U.S. doesn’t need to fear Japan becoming a threat again, and Japan doesn’t need to allocate funds towards a military, instead letting the U.S. play the role of world police.
But we live in the twenty-first century, not 1945. With the backdrop of questionable American leadership and North Korea being an openly belligerent neighbor that not only has nuclear weapons, but has also been firing rockets over Japan and into the surrounding seas.
China, in the background of its ongoing dispute with Japan over territory in the East China Sea, has been modernizing, growing and upgrading its military. Its latest step has been to create joint chiefs to coordinate between its army, navy and rocket force. This move implies that China may be anticipating a full-scale war in the future, and thus desires to improve its capabilities in the sea and on land. This military build-up increases the need for Japan to be able to defend itself should China ultimately turn its forces against Japan.
The Japanese government has a clear mandate to defend its people, a task they have pushed onto the U.S. for near 70 years. Yet, if a war broke out tomorrow in North Korea (an increasing possibility), Japan would have no choice but to play cheerleader, sitting on the sidelines while others fight over the future of the region.
Abe needs two-thirds of the parliament to approve an amendment to the constitution and, as it currently stands, this issue is hotly debated. Public opinion is strongly divided between those who fear to see pacifist Japan re-arm and those who would like Japan to play a more active role in regional security. Ultimately, the decision lies with the Japanese people and what future they want for their nation.
Eli: In the realm of military reform, Japan’s post World War II constitution has remained largely unchanged, as it should. This constitution has allowed Japan to flourish economically and maintain a technologically superior defense force. Even with military restraints, Japan is currently the eighth largest defense spender in the world.
In 2014, Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet made a decision to expand JSDF overseas deployments and engage with other militaries, such as India’s, in a more proactive way. JSDF forces deployed in the early years of the War In Iraq, but were reliant on foreign units for protection. Additionally, the past year’s defense spending authorization followed the trend of a one to two percent increase in spending per year, keeping Japan among the ten highest spenders on defense.
All arms of the JSDF have benefitted from Japan’s close relationship with the U.S. The maritime branch, the JMSDF, has a total of four “helicopter destroyers,” which are essentially light aircraft carriers, the most possessed by any Asian country. These ships are emblematic of the JMSDF’s powerful status.
Additionally, Japan has a sizable destroyer fleet with six advanced Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyers, the same systems employed by the U.S. Navy. While the constitution prevents the deployment of Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they are an offensive weapon, it does not limit the ability to provide theater missile defense.
Furthermore, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force is composed of an array of modern, capable systems that were either developed jointly or exclusively by the U.S. The Mitsubishi F-2s, F-15s and eventually F-35s possessed by the JASDF have given it a significant edge over its regional competitors. The JASDF is also equipped with modern PAC-3 variants of the Patriot missile systems, providing a sophisticated layer of missile defense.
Japan’s military capabilities, while focused on defense of its home islands, are formidable and capable. If Japan were attacked, not only would it be able to respond with its significant capabilities, its retaliation would also be accompanied by the U.S. military.
Clearly, Japanese and U.S. forces are designed to fight and win wars alongside each other. Japan’s willingness to maintain the cutting edge status of its weapons systems and continued alliance with the U.S. precludes the need for any constitutional amendment. Additionally, if the U.S. were to conduct a retaliatory or preemptive strike against the D.P.R.K., Japanese forces could serve a defensive role that would free up U.S. capabilities to carry out offensive tasks. Because of the Abe government’s use of extra-constitutional measures to alter the posture of the JSDF and its clear qualitative advantage, any amendments to the Japanese constitution are unneeded.
Daniel Burke is a staff writer at the Nanjing Bureau. He is currently completing his Certificate of Chinese and American studies at the Hopkins – Nanjing Center before beginning his MA in Fall 2018. Eli Tirk is a managing editor at the Nanjing Bureau. He is a second year master’s student concentrating in International Politics.