In this week's column for The Diplomat, "Where Is Japan in Its Military Push Under Abe?," I write about Japan's efforts in building up its capabilities as it confronts regional security threats.
Amid continuing tensions in the Korean Peninsula and China’s rising power and aggressive behavior, it is no surprise that Japan has been taking a whole host of steps to boost its own military capabilities over the past few years under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. While the most often cited manifestation of this is Abe’s effort to reform the Japanese Constitution, there is also a wider range of measures being undertaken both in terms of what Tokyo is doing on its own as well as what it is doing with allies and partners.
The past few weeks have offered indications of where Japan is on a couple of these fronts. Just last week, Abe spoke about constitutional revision at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) annual convention in an effort to develop the required consensus to take this process forward. After the speech, the LDP decided to follow Abe’s direction to amend Article 9 and include “an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces.” This step has been seen as a requirement; several constitutional experts have called the SDF unconstitutional because “it violates the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.”
Abe went on to add that the proposed amendment will bring about clarity to the SDF’s status under the constitution but “it will not alter in any way Japan’s national security policies.” Also, in an effort to secure broader public support, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera asserted that civilian control over military will be maintained “based on prewar lessons.”
Following these deliberations and the continuing threats from China and North Korea, Japan has also undertaken a major organizational revamping of its Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) with the creation of a centralized command and amphibious forces, which we have been hearing more about of late. The reorganization constitutes the largest since JGSDF was formed in 1954.
Instituting the new Command for the GSDF is meant to create abilities to undertake seamless and flexible operations across the country whereas the amphibious forces are meant for defending remote islands, particularly relevant in the context of China’s assertive maritime posturing.
In the face of the North Korean threat, a unified command for the GSDF will bring about greater synergy and coherence among the five regional armies. The defense minister, while addressing the media, stated that there will be situations in the future where the Ground, Maritime, and Air Self-Defense Forces have to coordinate nationwide in a quick reaction against ballistic missile launches, attacks on islands, and natural disasters.
The GSDF Command, headquartered at Camp Asaka in Tokyo, will be headed by Lt. Gen. Shigeru Kobayashi, former head of the GSDF’s Central Readiness Force. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade will be headed by Maj. Gen. Shinichi Aoki, who was the former deputy chief of staff of the Western Army.
The naval and air wings of the SDFs already had a central command center, and now, with all the three services having their own central commands, the defense ministry believes that there will be better coordinated joint operations among the three arms of the SDF. This could also possibly create better communication linkages with the U.S. military based in Japan.
While both North Korea and China are major threats to Japan, Beijing’s aggressive policy in the maritime domain has been of particular concern to Tokyo. Japan has been mindful of the kind of tactics China employed in the South China Sea to alter the status quo. Thus, the amphibious brigade that has been created will have an important role in retaking islands if they are unlawfully taken.
The brigade will cover southwest, from Kyushu to Taiwan, and will include Miyako Island, about 210 km from the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. This is an area that has seen increased Chinese military activity in the recent past – the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has become particularly active in the airspace between Okinawa and Miyako Islands. Additionally, Chinese naval vessels have been frequenting these waters, increasing tensions there.
But amid the hype around all this, it is worth noting that the amphibious brigade is still being set up, and it could be some time before the full capacity is in place. For instance, there is uncertainty around the deployment of the U.S.-made V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which will be key in transporting troops. The government’s plans to deploy 17 of the newly procured Osprey aircraft have not gained local approval.
There are broader uncertainties too. Amending the constitution is no easy task. Even as LDP lawmaker Hiroyuki Hosoda has developed consensus on the revisions on the constitution, other members of the ruling coalition are not entirely happy. Junior coalition partners like Komeito are not entirely on board with Abe’s plans, and since a two-thirds majority is required in both houses of the Diet to make these constitutional changes, the math means that LDP likely needs the support of Komeito in the Lower House and the support of other smaller opposition parties in the Upper House to effect these changes.
As for the support from the public, different surveys have produced different results, but those variations in and of themselves suggest that public perception is a variable that ought not to be left out in this discussion. A survey conducted by Kyodo News revealed 48.5 percent of respondents against the constitutional changes whereas 39.2 supported the amendments. Another survey conducted over telephone had shown only 33 percent of respondents supporting Abe’s moves and 54.8 opposing the revisions. These numbers certainly look better than a few years ago, but Abe still faces many challenges in terms of public perception, whether it is linked to defense issues or other domestic concerns.
There is opposition also within some parts of the bureaucracy. Media accounts have already surfaced citing sources from the defense ministry who criticized the move as “useless,” saying it will only delay the decision-making process that is required to get things done on the defense side.
Beyond these internal challenges, there are also external concerns as well. Among those are how these moves, including constitutional changes, may be perceived by China and South Korea, which have their own respective concerns about a militarized Japan.
Despite all this, Abe shows few signs of easing on his military push for Japan. That is no surprise given his own personal commitment to this goal as well as the regional trends that are impacting Japan’s security. Whether or not that will change, and to what extent all this lasts once he leaves office, remains to be seen.