Japan’s new right casts a hawkish eye on security policy

Wheels are turning within Japanese politics, following the strengthening of the right in the November election for the lower house of the Diet. A review of the National Security Strategy has begun, and the strengthened arm of conservatism makes a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution more feasible than ever before.

This is happening at a time when a leading political player, ex-prime minister, key LDP faction head and kingmaker Shinzo Abe, is talking up a defense of Taiwan. Is Japan on the warpath? Asia Times’ Northeast Asia Editor Andrew Salmon reported on the matter this week and offered some background exclusively for War Drums’ subscribers.

Is Japan’s “Self Defense Force” potent?

Yes and no. In terms of overall numbers – 249,000 personnel – it is less than half the size of South Korea’s 555,000-man military, but is fully professional. However, it has no recent combat experience and is not a popular career option, which makes recruitment and retention problematic. In terms of spend, Japan shells out about half the NATO average, which is 2% of GDP, on defense. But 1% of the GDP of the world’s third-largest economy is big bucks and PM Kishida is talking about raising this. So, Japan’s warriors can afford the best toys on the market. Experts question the Ground Self Defense Force, which some say remains trapped in a Cold War time capsule, postured against a now non-existent USSR.

However, the Maritime Self Defense Force gets high marks. It fields dangerous submarine and anti-submarine assets, and has more destroyers than the Royal and French navies combined, and is increasing its training with like-minded navies: US, Australian, British, French and Indian. The Air Self Defense Force, which will deploy the world’s largest fleet of F35 stealth fighters after the USAF once all orders are received, is building up plentiful experience responding to Chinese flights and intrusions.

Having canceled its planned Aegis Ashore missile defense net, there is talk of developing a first-strike capability. What is the status?

Right now, nada. There are multiple highly complex technologies that would need to be acquired and synchronized but first, the political will to deploy such a high-risk deterrent must be in place. That will does not yet exist, though senior politicians have been talking about this for two years now. A debate has to happen.

The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex in Kauai, Hawaii, successfully conducts a flight test in 2018.

How long would it take for Japan to develop a capability to defend Taiwan?
A significant capability already exists. Tokyo could, feasibly, deploy from the Ryukyu chain to the north of Taiwan, along with powerful US Navy elements in Japan, and US Marine elements on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyus. The MSDF has extremely capable crafts and crews, and fields a marine brigade and three landing ships. Two light aircraft carriers are in the pipeline.
No independent Japanese defense of Taiwan looks likely or possible, but Japanese forces could provide a very significant adjunct to US forces in the region if push ever came to shove and the Taiwan situation went kinetic.  One issue to watch out for in the future is if a joint Japan-US Command is stood up.
Are Japan’s citizens behind the hawks?
The conventional wisdom is that Japan’s public is pacifist, with no taste for foreign adventurism. But cracks are appearing in this wisdom. The rightward shift in the Diet is real and in terms of national leadership, the LDP looks unassailable for the present. And let us remember the constitutional “reinterpretation” of 2014-2015, which granted considerable elasticity on defense policy.

That passed without any major public backlash. An external issue is the behavior of the neighbors. Japan’s public is concerned about China’s regional assertiveness and North Korea’s missile tests. It is fed up with South Korea’s constant rehashing of historical issues, and sees Taiwan as its closest friend in the region. These emotions play into the hands of the hawks.


Thus says the Lord: Learn not the way of the [heathen] nations and be not dismayed at the signs of the heavens, though they are dismayed at them,

For the customs and ordinances of the peoples are false, empty, and futile; it is but a tree which one cuts out of the forest [to make for himself a god], the work of the hands of the craftsman with the ax or other tool.

They deck [the idol] with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so it will not fall apart or move around.

[Their idols] are like pillars of turned work [as upright and stationary and immobile as a palm tree], like scarecrows in a cucumber field; they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it possible for them to do good [and it is not in them]. (Jeremiah 10:2-5 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition)

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