It hardly requires an advanced degree in history to recall that the last time the Japanese military fielded aircraft carriers they were used to attack the US, spurring our entry into World War II.
But, in fairness, that was in the 1940s, and while 2018 might not be chronologically far from then in terms of geopolitics, it might as well be eons later. For when Japan and the United States butted heads across the Pacific, it was because – excepting some declining European colonial powers – they were the sole powers of the region.
But now, over half a century since Mao’s revolution successfully secured control of the goliath nation, China has reared its head as not only a regional power, but a global one for the first time since the days of the Ming Empire.
And Japan is taking note; CNN reports,
“Japan is poised to put its first aircraft carriers to sea since World War II, refitting its Izumo-class warships to carry US-designed F-35B fighter jets, the government announced Tuesday.
In its 10-year Defense Program Guidelines, Tokyo said it will buy 42 of the stealthy F-35Bs, which are designed for short-run take offs and vertical landings.
Those planes will be available for deployment aboard two flat-top ships, the JS Izumo and JS Kaga, which at more than 800 feet long and displacing 27,000 tons are the largest ships in the Japanese fleet.
“Under the drastically changing security environment around Japan, the government will take all possible measures to protect the lives and assets of Japanese people,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday in announcing the plan.
“The review of the new defense guideline is extremely meaningful to show the Japanese people and the world what is truly necessary in our defense to protect the people and to serve as the cornerstone of the future (for the Japan Self-Defense Forces).”
The new guidelines listed China, North Korea and Russia, as well as the United States and NATO, as entities with massive military capabilities with which Japan must concern itself.”
That last part could be cause for at least some minor concern for the United States, as again, the last time Japan wielded carriers it was against the US. That said, Japan will remain largely dependent on US presence in the region and seeing as the carriers will be operating 20b models of 147 ordered cutting-edge American F-35 aircraft, it’s safe to presume the measure is largely geared towards countering historical rival China.
Regional Tensions Rising
The facts certainly point to this being the case. The declaration of the 10-year plan for increasing military capabilities comes in the wake of a controversial Japanese defense white paper explicitly concerned regarding China reading,
“China’s rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, enhancement of operational capabilities, and unilateral escalation of activities in areas close to Japan are generating strong security concerns in the region and international community, including Japan,”
While that document and the underlying tensions between China and Japan are old news, this recent Japanese move to assert themselves was just released by the national cabinet on Tuesday, and thus international reactions are quite literally in progress. The Japan Times lists the full buildup program outline explaining,
“The following is the gist of the new National Defense Program Guidelines and the fiscal 2019-2023 midterm defense buildup program approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday. Japan:
- will upgrade Izumo-class helicopter carriers so that they can transport and launch fighter jets.
- will buy 18 F-35B fighter jets capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
- will beef up defense in new domains of warfare such as cyber and outer space.
- aims to build “multidimensional” defense capabilities for operations across various domains.
- expresses “strong concern” over China’s military activities.
- will install two land-based Aegis missile systems.
- will spend over ¥27 trillion — a record — in the five-year period.”
The Red Sun Rises
Regardless of who the armaments are meant to be aimed towards, the move is a substantial alteration in Japanese policy doctrine, with the nation having followed a zealous route of diplomatic pacifism since drafting their modern constitution under US occupation following the end of WWII.
Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has long been pushing for the nation to adequately arm itself for the international dangers it faces. That fight was controversial with his countrymen and markedly unsuccessful in the past, but now as superpowers and nuclear capable nations bluster in the waters all about Japan, he clearly sees more success in eroding Japan’s military dependence on the US. The New York Times reports,
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has never seemed to waver in his support for President Trump, seeking out meetings and regularly speaking by telephone. He is one of a few world leaders who rarely criticize or even comment on Mr. Trump’s political turmoil at home.
But amid public proclamations that appear to show little difference between the countries — and as North Korea accelerates its nuclear program — Mr. Abe has started to consider a more independent role for Japan in Asia: one that looks beyond the current White House as Japan prepares for an era in which American influence may be waning.
Japan is beginning to confront whether it wants to assert itself as a regional leader and carry on the values that have long been the foundation of American policy. “In the long term, Japan has to think about how to preserve liberal order and free trade,” said Takako Hikotani, an associate professor of modern Japanese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University. “That’s not just in the interest of Japan, but the region as a whole.”
While the Japanese navy is certainly a far cry from reaching the might of their Imperial predecessor, even with 2 new light carriers at the head of the fleet; these recent moves certainly serve to move Japan towards a military capacity at least potentially capable of asserting itself on the modern world stage complete with the dangers and powers it must face.