With Its Eye on China, Japan Builds Up Military
NAHA AIR BASE, Japan — This sun-baked airfield was built atop Okinawa’s rocky coral by Americans during the cold war, but these days its roaring jets proudly display the red sun of Japan.
The Japanese F-15 fighters are engaged in an increasingly busy, and at times tense, game of cat-and-mouse with rapidly modernizing China, just across the East China Sea. The pilots say they face intrusions into Japanese-controlled airspace by an array of increasingly sophisticated Chinese aircraft, including advanced fighters like the Russian-made Su-27.
“You cannot let down your guard when you fly up against an Su-27,” said Maj. Gen. Masashi Yamada, commander of Naha’s squadron of 24 fighters.
General Yamada will soon get additional help. In December, Tokyo announced plans to strengthen its forces in the southwestern Okinawan islands, including adding a dozen F-15s in Naha. The increase is part of a broader shift in Japanese defensive stance southward, toward China, that some analysts are calling one of Japan’s biggest changes in postwar military strategy.
This strategic shift is another step in a gradual and limited buildup of Japan’s forces, aimed at keeping up with the changing power balance in Asia while remaining within the bounds of Japan’s antiwar Constitution and the constraints of its declining economic power. Political analysts say Japan is slowly raising the capabilities of its forces to respond to a more assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea — and to take a first, halting step out of the shadow of the United States, its postwar protector, which many Japanese fear may one day no longer have the will or ability to defend Japan.
“This is all part of an agonizing soul-searching by Japan,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo. “Japan feels itself caught between the reality of Chinese power and questions about U.S. commitments in East Asia.”
Japan’s new national defense guidelines scrapped the cold war-era strategy of amassing land forces on the northern island of Hokkaido, where they were dug in against a Soviet invasion, in favor of building a more mobile force focused on defending its islands and vast seas in the south. To do this, Japan will strengthen its sea and air forces by adding submarines and helicopter-carrying ships that resemble small aircraft carriers, acquiring next-generation fighter planes and creating a new amphibious infantry unit that Tokyo says would be used to thwart an invasion of outlying islands.
Political analysts are quick to point out that at least for now this is not a full-blown military buildup by Japan, a former colonial power whose pacifist Constitution constrains it to purely defensive forces. They say there is not strong public support for changing the Constitution to allow a full-fledged military, something that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried and failed to do four years ago.
The increases are also limited by Japan’s own economic weakening: its military spending has been shrinking for the past decade along with the size of its overall economy, with little prospect of future increases. Japan’s defense budget has decreased 5.2 percent since 2001 to 4.68 trillion yen, or $56.4 billion at current rates, though it is still estimated to be one of the five or six largest in the world. To pay for its planned strengthening in the south, Tokyo will cut hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces in the north, and slightly reduce Japan’s current number of 155,000 ground troops.
Given its limits, Japan’s strategy for now appears for it to become a fuller military partner of the United States, which maintains 50,000 military personnel in Japan. Japanese planners now speak of a division of labor between the two militaries, in which a more robust Japan carries a greater load in areas like anti-submarine warfare, freeing up the Americans to focus elsewhere. The December guidelines also call for “integrating” Japanese and American forces by sharing command centers and intelligence.
Analysts say Tokyo seeks to bind the two militaries together in order to keep the United States engaged in East Asia, and from becoming too distracted by its financial crisis and war in Afghanistan.
“Japan is strengthening itself as an alliance partner,” said Richard J. Samuels, an expert on Japanese security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “while also hedging against the day when U.S. capabilities might slip below U.S. commitments.”
Indeed, Japan seems to have reached a new consensus about the need to remain close to the United States, even while strengthening itself. The governing party, the left-leaning Democrats, briefly experimented with pulling away from Washington under former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who in 2009 called for taking Japan closer to China, and clashed with Washington over an air base in Okinawa.
However, his successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has worked to regain Washington’s trust. China also inadvertently pushed Japan back toward the United States in September, when Beijing’s heavy-handed pressuring of Tokyo to release a detained Chinese trawler captain surprised and angered many Japanese.
“China has misplayed its hand in the last year, and that has forced the Democratic Party to get more realistic about regional security issues,” said Akihisa Nagashima, a Democratic lawmaker who until recently held the No. 3 spot at the Ministry of Defense. “We don’t want overdependence on the United States, but we also need the United States.”
Analysts say one goal of Japan’s new strategy is to make its military a more visible presence, to discourage China from trying to extend its reach into waters now controlled by Japan. While Japan has one of most sophisticated militaries in Asia, and the region’s most respected navy, it has long been careful to keep its euphemistically named Self-Defense Forces largely out of sight to avoid threatening neighbors victimized by Japan’s early 20th century empire-building.
For now, at least some of its neighbors appear willing to accept a larger Japanese military presence. The new Japanese strategy received very little opposition in South Korea, which analysts say now sees China, and also North Korea, as bigger threats than Japan. In fact, South Korea and Japan are now negotiating their first military cooperation agreements since Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945.
“If anything, we now need a stronger Japan to maintain the regional security balance,” said Park Young-June, a Japanese security expert at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul.
In Okinawa, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, Japan’s navy, says that it now conducts regular air patrols of areas disputed by China and Japan, including gas fields in the East China Sea and the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands claimed by both nations but administered by Japan. In April, the Japanese navy also monitored a flotilla of 10 Chinese warships that steamed through waters near Okinawa, and the Chinese sent a helicopter to buzz a shadowing Japanese warship.
“There has been a dramatic increase in Chinese naval activity in our area,” said Rear Adm. Tadayoshi Takahashi, the commander of the navy’s air wing that shares Naha Air Base with the Air Self-Defense Forces, Japan’s air force.
To strengthen its position on Okinawa and nearby islands, the Self-Defense Forces are building new radar stations and antimissile batteries. Two years ago, Tokyo replaced Naha Air Base’s outdated squadron of Vietnam War-era F-4 fighters with its current F-15s, and put the base under the command of Lt. Gen. Hidetoshi Hirata, one of the Japanese air force’s top officers, with a Ph.D. from Stanford.
“It takes time for change to happen,” said General Hirata, “but Japan is realizing the importance of what is going on down here in Okinawa.”