Japan: military expansion and instability in East Asia

Japan: military expansion and instability in East Asia

With an incursive China, relaxing American input, and an ambiguous Trump-Kim relationship, Japan bolsters its military capabilities to face uncertain times. This action is impacting East Asian politics in ways unfelt since the Second World War.

Since 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working towards a reformation of Japan’s military capabilities. The PM has also hinted at plans to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which famously renounces the country’s ability to wage war. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) controls both houses of government, yet it has not gathered enough support to secure the two-thirds majority that would enable a constitutional amendment. The Japanese public remains unconvinced that a stronger military is what the country needs, considering Japan’s decades-long history of pacifism. Moreover, the pacifist Komeito party, the LDP’s coalition partners, may present a staunch obstacle to Abe’s proposals.

Wheels in motion

In January, the US State Department approved the sale of two Aegis Weapons Systems to Japan worth $2.1 billion. Japan has also committed to purchasing 147 F-35 fighter jets and produced its first aircraft carrier since World War Two. Moreover, the nation has increased efforts to intercept Chinese incursions on Japanese airspace in the South China and East China Seas. Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne applauded Japan taking steps to bolster its defence force, particularly regarding the plans for a $340 billion boost in military wares over the next few years.

Japan’s efforts in keeping pace with East Asia’s key military players highlight a break from its trend of actively pursuing non-aggressive security tactics. These developments indicate that Japan is willing to reform its military capabilities regardless of the outcome of the Article 9 debate.

Expansion, rhetoric and unhealed wounds

China’s attempts to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia have continued, as the country refuses to back down on any of its territorial claims, including the Spratly and Senkaku islands in the South and East China seas. North Korea’s fiery rhetoric and worrying missile launches further add to the instability of the region. One of the most alarming displays took place in August 2017, when North Korea launched a missile over the Japanese main island of Hokkaido. President Trump’s pledge to  “totally wipe out” North Korea should they threaten the US or her allies did little to soothe regional tensions. Indeed, Trump has pursued an inconsistent policy in East Asia, characterised by a flippant mixture of tough talk and friendly relations with China and North Korea, that is detrimental to political forecasting.

A major risk faced by Japan is the possibility of American retrenchment in the region being substituted by an increased Chinese presence. The prospect of North Korea legitimising its regime through Chinese and Russian support and negotiations with South Korea is also a distinct threat. This is because atrocities committed by the Japanese army during WW2 remains embedded in the political-cultural fabric of these countries. They are averse to the prospect of Japan once again emerging as a strong military power in the region.

An unexpected partnership in the making

Few leaders have shown such amiable relations to President Trump than Shinzo Abe. However, thus far the Prime Minister’s efforts have yielded few results. The US has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the trade talks between the two nations have stagnated. The increase in military cooperation between the two countries has been one of the few recent progressions in the Japan-US relationship. As for China, despite signs of cordiality between Trump and President Xi Jinping, the trade war between the two countries has forced the Asian nation into an area of economic uncertainty. This has prompted Abe and Xi to consider the possibility of exploring further economic cooperation. This would mainly focus on mutual infrastructural projects and developing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Historically, China and Japan’s relationship has been tempestuous, however, enhanced economic cooperation would undoubtedly mutually benefit the two countries. Japan needs to ensure stability for its export-centric economy, while China needs to maintain its current rates of growth in order to be able to deal with its high levels of inequality and expanding middle class.

A relationship of mutual dependency could aid in healing – at least in part, the animosity between the two nations. It certainly helped in the 1970s, when the US imposed a policy of detente, forcing China and Japan to work together in establishing Chinese independent of the USSR, whilst allowing Japan to enter the Chinese market. The normalisation of China-Japan relations in the 70’s stabilised East Asia and there is a chance this could be repeated in today’s circumstances. All the same, it is unclear if economic cooperation would be enough for China and Japan to discard their territorial ambitions.

Is East Asia more stable with less American influence?

Dire economic conditions may force Japan and China to cooperate, but the vacuum created by a decrease in US military and economic interest will likely fuel further instability in East Asia. Trump’s summit talks with Kim Jong-un have offered only symbolic progress, with little sign of North Korea actually reducing its military threat.  A diminished US presence harbours the potential to stimulate more economic cooperation amongst regional powers, but the threat of unleashing armed hostility held back by American intervention will also be present. An enhanced Japanese military will almost certainly agitate these tension.

If Abe succeeds in changing Article 9, the balance of power in East Asia will change considerably. A rearmed Japan would become, for the first time in almost 75 years, a regional player capable of projecting military power to assert its overseas goals. Considering the parliamentarian support behind the PM, it is highly likely that Abe’s amendments will take place, however his Komeito partners will fight to ensure that the constitutional changes are light.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alin Barbantan

Alin Barbantan is a Foreign Affairs and International Relations analyst with specialisation in History and Politics. Regional specialisation on NATO and East Asia. He is currently an international relations PhD student at the UCL Institute of the Americas on hegemony, burden-sharing and alliance "free riding". MA from UCL, BA from Queen Mary, University of London. Published research on country case studies for international organisations concerning democratisation and anti-corruption. Worked, studied, and did on-location research in diverse environments.