David J. Bercuson: Why Japan is building its military, fast

With 18 diesel electric submarines, four so-called “helicopter destroyers” that look suspiciously like small aircraft carriers, 43 destroyers and destroyer escorts, 25 minesweepers and training ships, fleet oilers, submarine rescue ships and other vessels, Japan’s navy — the Maritime Self-Defense Force — is the second largest in Asia and one of the largest in the world. It is also highly advanced technologically and is growing all the time. The two 27,000 ton Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, the largest in the fleet, with flat flight decks and islands on the starboard side of the vessels, are small compared to the United States Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers (approximately 100,000 tons) or Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (65,000 tons). But if equipped with the new short-take-off-and-vertical-landing F-35B stealth fighter they will still pack a powerful punch. And Japan is considering adding more of these aircraft carriers to its fleet and advanced U.S.-style Aegis class destroyers, capable of shooting down medium-range ballistic missiles.

The Japanese submarine Soryu is launched at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Kobe dockyard in western Japan on Dec. 5, 2007.

The irony in all of this is that Japan’s post Second World War constitution still contains a provision — Article 9 — that prohibits it from possessing any offensive military capability. In the early 1950s, Japan began to build its self-defence forces and now has a powerful navy, a modern medium-sized air force that will soon fly the F-35 along with specially built F-15s, alongside more than 300 fighter aircraft and 50,000 personnel, and a growing land army and marine sea landing capability.

Are these military assets “defensive” in nature?

Partly, but aircraft carriers, high-speed destroyers, modern fighter aircraft and assault ships are surely as offensive as they are defensive. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it plain that in less than two years, he intends to seek to change the Japanese constitution to drastically curtail any obligation Japan has to maintain a purely defensive capability. In other words, he will ask the Japanese people and legislature to bless what Japan has already done.

That could be more problematic than people realize.

Like Germany, Japan suffered greatly in the Second World War. Virtually all its great cities were levelled either with atomic bombs (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or fire raids that were carried out by giant B-29 bombers at low altitude at night. The attacks burned the heart out of Japan’s cities. In March 1945, 100,000 people were killed in one night in a fire raid on Tokyo and many acres of the city were burned to the ground. Submarine blockades of Japan drastically curtailed food and fuel supplies. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers were killed either in the United States’ march across the Pacific or in the Russian invasion of Manchuria near the end of the war. Japan was a prostrate nation by the end of 1945 and its ancient system of government was a shambles.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ship Kurama leads other vessels and aircraft ahead of an official fleet review off Sagami Bay, south of Tokyo, on Oct. 15, 2015.

The result of this terrible defeat was the rise of pacifist thinking throughout Japan. Having suffered from military defeat, few Japanese were interested any longer in military adventurism. At the same time democracy took root under the American occupation of Japan. To give but one example, although women still endure many disadvantages in Japan — as they do here also — the Americans forced the Japanese to accept women as fully equal in civil rights and political authority. Japanese industry re-grew and although Japan is no longer the second largest economy in the world — it was recently surpassed by China — it is still a highly technologically advanced economy turning out everything from advanced motor vehicles to high-quality TV sets and computers. Prime Minister Abe is a strong supporter of free trade as are most of the political hierarchy of Japan.

Why then would the Japanese people support a militarization of their country? We need look no further than the bellicose growth of Chinese nationalism and the recent moves by the Chinese to dominate the South and East China Seas in the way that the United States dominates the Caribbean. The Chinese have made no secret of their ambition with the creation of artificial islands that now host air bases, anti-aircraft missiles, and Chinese “coast guard” vessels that though mostly painted white (as coast guard vessels generally are), mount naval-style guns on their foredecks.

Japan is heavily dependent on sea transport, especially for fuel oil and natural gas, that comes from the Middle East via the Strait of Malacca and the Formosa Strait. With the U.S. under President Donald Trump adopting an increasing isolationist tone, Japan, like Australia and other nations in the region, will have to put more assets into their own defence.

— David J. Bercuson is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

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