Japan’s Defense from North to South

Army Berets
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Army Berets

When Japan’s Democratic Party (JDP) finally ended the hegemony of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last year the expectations were that we would have a more pacifist government. After all a key component of the JDP were members of the Japan Socialist Party that had always stressed good relations with China and greater reluctance to be part of an alliance with the United States. China though officially neutral was quietly pleased with the change in Japanese politics.

Now it looks like the Chinese may yet regret the reversal as the government of Nato Kan may be modifying some of Japan’s traditional policies in the direction of a more assertive defensive posture. Japan is reacting to China’s growing influence in South East Asia that has proven to be more pain than gain as China has severely disappointed Japan (and the US as well) by its failure to rein in North Korea whose economic survival is dependent on China.

Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa agreed on modest reductions in the defense budget and the size of the armed forces in discussions at the Finance Ministry on Sunday. The defense budget was slightly reduced to 23.49 trillion yen during fiscal 2011-15 and regular personnel by 1,000 to 147,000. While this may look like standing pat or even retrenchment the makeup of the Japanese forces is the crucial issue. Ground forces and tanks were part of a traditional approach since the post war period that envisioned Japan’s army playing exclusively the role of a self-defense force (the official name of the Japanese army). This meant that the army would be employed only upon an invasion of Japan proper. Defense scenarios during the Cold War were tailored to meet an attack from the north – namely the Soviet Union. Although there is still no formal peace treaty ending World War II between Japan and Russia (the successor to the Soviet  Union) due to the failure to resolve the dispute over Sakhalin nobody even remotely considers the threat of a Russian invasion. The threats now lie elsewhere the army will now defend remote island chains some of whom are in dispute with China.

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The Japanese Self-Defense Forces will deploy more submarines seas off Okinawa in southern Japan, the scene of a territorial dispute with China. Likewise anti missile carrying destroyers will be used as a possible antidote to North Korea. Vice Defense Minister Jun Azumi in an interview with Reuters this week said that Japan should improve its defense capability in the southwest where it shares a maritime border with China, adding Beijing’s military buildup has increased regional instability.

“Our attention was on the north during the Cold War. But we have to shift our focus to the defense of southwest … The most important step to strengthen our defense over the next 10 years is to secure the mobility (of our troops),” Azumi said in the interview. Mobility means the ability to project force outwards and the submarines and destroyers are to be joined by pocket air craft carriers capable of launching helicopters and combat aircraft.

It is one of history’s ironies that German rearmament received immediate acceptance while in Southeast Asia talk of an empowered Japanese military still creates alarm. China’s news agency Xinhua on December 14 citedChinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu who said that “Japan needs to consider its Asian neighbors’ feelings and concerns more, and act prudently regarding military matters.” China suspects that Japan will be part of an American scheme to balance and contain China and has cast a wary eye on this month’s mammoth military exercise involving 34,000 Japan Self Defense Force personnel with 40 warships and 250 aircraft teaming-up with more than 10,000 U.S. military troops, 20 U.S. warships and 150 aircraft. South Korea given the legacy of Japanese colonial rule is likewise uneasy despite the common threat posed to Seoul and Tokyo by North Korea.

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