February 4, 2023

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Japan wants to radically overhaul its defense policy in the face of threats from China

Tokyo, Japan (AFP)

Japan is expected to announce its biggest defense overhaul in decades this week, increasing spending, revamping its military command and acquiring new missiles to deal with the Chinese threat.

The policy, set to be outlined in three defense and security documents as early as Friday, will reshape the defense landscape in a country whose post-war constitution the military does not even officially recognize.

“The fundamental strengthening of our defense capabilities is the most pressing challenge in this difficult security environment,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said over the weekend.

“We will urgently expand our defense capabilities over the next five years.”

The postponement comes as a result of Tokyo’s concerns about China’s growing military strength and regional posture, as well as threats ranging from North Korean missile launches to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Key to the new guidelines is a pledge to increase spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027 to bring Japan into line with NATO members.

This represents a significant increase over historical spending of around one percent and has sparked criticism of the funding.

The money will fund projects including acquiring what Japan calls “counterstrike capability” — the ability to hit launch sites that threaten the country, even pre-emptively.

Japan has previously balked at acquiring this capability when it came to disputes over whether it could violate the constitution’s limit of self-defense.

In a nod to the controversy, the policy documents will reportedly insist that Japan remains committed to a “self-defence-oriented security policy” and “will not become a military power.”

Some of that capacity will come from up to 500 US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles. Japan is reportedly considering the purchase as a back-up while it develops long-range missiles domestically.

– “Greatest strategic challenge” –

Japan has also announced plans to develop a next-generation fighter jet with Italy and Britain, and is reportedly planning to build new ammunition depots and launch satellites to guide potential counter-strike.

The changes will also affect military organization, with the Nikkei newspaper reporting that all three branches of the Self-Defense Forces will be brought under a single command within five years.

The SDF presence in Japan’s southernmost islands is being bolstered – including a tripling of units with ballistic missile intercept capabilities, according to local media.

The documents, including the key national security strategy, are expected to point to China for policy change.

Japan’s ruling party reportedly wanted to label Beijing a “threat” but, under pressure from its coalition partner, will settle for calling China a “serious concern” and Japan’s “biggest strategic challenge.”

This still marks a sea change from 2013, the document’s first iteration and last update, when Japan said it was seeking a “mutually beneficial strategic partnership,” a phrase that is now expected to disappear.

Concerns about China have deepened since Beijing’s major military drills around Taiwan in August, during which missiles slammed into Japanese economic waters.

China on Wednesday said it was “strongly” opposed to the proposed documents.

They “deviate from Japan’s commitment to bilateral relations and the China-Japan consensus, and contain baseless slanders against China,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.

Japan is also expected to call Russia a challenge compared to a 2013 promise to seek cooperation and “strengthen” ties.

Japan has joined Western allies in imposing sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine, sending already chilly relations into a deep freeze.

The radical defense overhaul is likely to anger Beijing, which has regularly cited Japan’s bellicose belligerence in criticizing Tokyo.

It may also be making waves domestically, although polls show growing support for a stronger defense strategy.

“For Japan’s defense policymakers, these developments do not represent a militaristic resurgence but the latest step in a slow, gradual normalization of defense and national security,” said James Brady, vice president of consulting firm Teneo.