Reviving the land of the rising sun

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Despite Japan's huge economy, it still struggles to escape the global marginalisation of its strategic affairs

"JAPAN is back" amounts to more than just a marketing effort to rebrand a country. For Mr Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister who popularised the phrase (tellingly, in English), it is becoming a rallying cry for the revival of a nation, for Japan's assumption of what it considers as its rightful place at the world's top table.

Nowhere is Mr Abe's determination clearer than in his push to boost the country's military power. Japan stands accused of seeking to revive its militaristic past over such high-profile efforts. But most of these fears are misplaced: far from moving ahead purposely, the Japanese are fumbling into a strategic competition they scarcely comprehend.

The scale of Japan's rearmament ambitions is no longer in doubt. The country is already America's biggest and closest technological partner on missile defence, outstripping the contributions made by the Europeans in this field, an astonishing reversal of military alliance arrangements which would have been inconceivable even a few years ago.

Tokyo also decided last year to purchase the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as replacement for its obsolete F-4 and F-15 fighter jets, giving Japan a long-sought-after ground attack capability by the end of this decade.

And it recently launched the 19,500-ton Izumo, a ship the Japanese prefer to classify as a "destroyer" despite the fact that it has a 250m-long flight deck which makes it look suspiciously like an aircraft carrier.

Some of these moves were started years ago and are only now coming to fruition. But all were given an added impetus by Prime Minister Abe since his return to power last December - and much more is in prospect.

For the first time in more than a decade, Japan's overall defence spending is growing. If current budget plans are implemented, defence expenditure will rise next year by 3 per cent, the highest such single yearly jump since the 1990s, when the Japanese economy was booming.

More than hardware

IN SHEER numbers, Japan's military remains puny in comparison to that of its immediate big neighbours: it only has 243,000 soldiers, half of South Korea's standing army and only a tenth of China's. Japan also has only 700 serviceable aircraft, less than a third of the Chinese air force's inventory.

But the Japanese compensate for quantity with quality: despite all the sabre-rattling over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, military planners in Beijing know that their navy is still no match for Japan's, despite the fact that China has four times as many vessels.

Besides, there is more to enhanced security than just hardware, as Mr Abe has shown. He has presided over a whirlwind of diplomatic initiatives. By next month, he would have visited every single Asean country, a feat no previous Japanese leader has accomplished in such a short time span. Mr Abe also toured Europe and the US, delivering a substantial security policy speech in each capital.

And the political tsunami continues. Last week in Tokyo, Mr Abe devoted a whole afternoon to telling a senior British delegation of his desire to forge closer military links with Britain, and a further full day to the US- Japan strategic dialogue, attended by foreign and defence ministers from both nations. He successfully pushed for a visit of Japan's imperial couple to India next month, a rare event given the Japanese monarch's advanced age.

Japan also lifted restrictions on the sale of military technology to other nations by offering the Indians its indigenously made US-2 amphibious aircraft.

And if this is not enough, Mr Abe has pledged to amend his country's pacifist Constitution, thereby removing any restriction on the deployment of Japanese forces overseas. The Japanese Premier seems determined to smash all previous political taboos, and all at once.

Seen from the outside, Mr Abe's campaign to reassert Japan's global footprint, not only in economics but also in security terms, seems both imaginative and coherent. Sadly, however, much of this is taking place in an intellectual vacuum. The military changes Japan is undergoing are real, but they remain incoherent and are years if not decades away from giving the country a true long-range military capability.

Nothing illustrates the distinction between vision and reality better than the dispute over the amending of Japan's Constitution. Much of this debate is irrelevant, because the explicit restrictions which the Constitution places on Japan's military have already been ignored, while those which are implicit can be readily changed without laborious amendments.

Japan's Constitution, for instance, decrees that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained", but the country has had all three for decades. Yet at the same time, the Constitution does not explicitly say that Japanese defence budgets should stay below 1 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product, or that Japan cannot sell weapons to others.

Hollow consensus

ALL these are restrictions imposed by politicians, and amenable to being cancelled by politicians. So the claim that Japan now requires years of heated legal debates plus a referendum on constitutional changes before it becomes a "normal military power" - as Mr Abe likes to put it - is just a smokescreen intended to cover the fact that no domestic political consensus exists on where Japan needs to be.

Such a consensus cannot emerge as long as Japan continues to lack the strategic culture required to transform the creed of national revival into deed. Officially, Japan has no intelligence service; in practice, it operates plenty of electronic listening devices and a network of overseas agents. But Tokyo has no centralised system of digesting the collected information and transforming it into an analytical assessment to help politicians make informed security choices.

Mr Abe would dearly like to create a national security council akin to that operating in the US. But Japan has a parliamentary system similar to that of Britain or Singapore, rather than the American presidential political system. Mr Abe has therefore sent his advisers to London to see whether the British model of intelligence assessment, which is concentrated around the Cabinet Office, can work better. But no decisions have been taken.

Strategic drift

MEANWHILE, Japan has no official secrets Act, so civil servants who leak government documents are never prosecuted; at worst, they lose their jobs. It was only recently that Japanese media correspondents were banned from milling around the same floor in the government building where the country's Cabinet meetings take place. The confidentiality of strategic decision-making is still decades behind that of other countries.

And the poverty of strategic thought extends much further. Mr Abe's preference for creating a web of regional friendships is shrewd. Nobody in Tokyo believes that this web can or should contain China, even if this was possible. The hope is that the network of potential allies which Japan currently nurtures will at least persuade the Chinese that they cannot push Japan around too much, or that Beijing will have to pay a great price if it continues doing so.

But the Japanese don't seem to grasp that the more they expect their network of regional allies to counter-balance China, the more these allies will shy away from such a task. What Japan needs is to create a regional system of cooperation which is more than an ill-disguised anti-Chinese club.

The biggest and most important step in this regard must be a Japanese-South Korean reconciliation. This will transform the strategic map of Asia, and have a profound impact on Chinese military behaviour, which currently assumes that the Japanese and Koreans will always remain at loggerheads. For the moment at least, the Abe administration has preferred to bypass the issue. Nor has anything been done to tackle emotional historic disputes.

The outcome, therefore, is not a Japan which is "back" but a country which is tiptoeing towards a new starting line without knowing if it should then sprint, or just halt there.

The danger for global security is not so much a revival of militarism in Japan but of a nation which is still one of the world's economic workhorses, frustrated by its strategic marginalisation and incapable of escaping it. In short, while Mr Abe may have broken Japan's economic paralysis, he has yet to break the country's strategic drift.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com