Japan's military is back — and open for business

Spurred by a rising China, Japan is rolling back decades of pacifism and getting in on the lucrative defense market

Every two years in Paris, the Eurosatory Defense Trade Show boasts the most advanced weapons systems on the market. Defense contractors from dozens of countries hawk the latest military equipment to delegations from around the world, hoping to seal orders and bring home business.

This year, names such as Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Kawasaki will make an appearance, marking the first time ever that Japanese defense contractors will appear at an international arms show. It's yet another example of Japan's swiftly changing attitudes towards issues of war and peace.

For more than half a century, Japan's defense establishment, focused on home defense and prohibited from selling arms abroad, has been nearly invisible. Now, driven by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's reform agenda and concerns about a rising China, Japan is on the road to a more flexible military, a more robust global presence, and stronger alliances. And it is eager to seize a share of the worldwide arms market.

In the wake of the Second World War, Japan adopted a pacifist constitution that renounced war as an instrument of national policy and relinquished the right to keep and maintain armed forces. Subsequent interpretations of the constitution have allowed for so-called "self defense forces" — ground, air, and maritime forces stripped of offensive weapons and designed to operate defensively.

Although defensive in nature, the Japan Self-Defense Forces are hardly toothless. They are 240,000 strong, with three aircraft carriers, more than 40 destroyers, 300 first-line fighters, and the capability to shoot down ballistic missiles. It's a formidable force for defending Japan, but it has little ability to project power beyond Japan's borders.

In the past five years, Japan's security environment has become a lot more complicated. North Korea has tested three nuclear weapons and continues work on ballistic missiles to carry them. Russia has become more active in the Far East, reinforcing garrisons near Japan and what are known as the Northern Territories, a string of islands seized from Japan at the end of World War II.

But the big change is China. China's defense budget has grown more than tenfold since 1989, and the country now outspends Japan on defense by a factor of four to one. China has grown more aggressive in East Asia, and in 2011, China began asserting control of what it refers to as the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku Islands to Japan.

Japan is also facing growing pressure in the air. In 2013, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighters to intercept foreign aircraft 433 times, a new record, primarily against Chinese and Russian military aircraft. On Sunday, Japan's Ministry of Defense complained that Chinese fighters had intercepted a Japanese intelligence plane in the East China Sea.

In response to increased Chinese activity in the southwestern Ryukyu Islands and East China Sea, the Self-Defense Forces are reorienting and reorganizing, shifting units westward and becoming more mobile in the process. Three squadrons of fighters and early warning aircraft are being sent west to handle the increased number of intercepts. A new marine brigade, based in Nagasaki, will be equipped with American-built MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and amphibious vehicles.

Japan has built three of what it calls "helicopter destroyers" — large surface ships with full-length flight decks. Most countries would call them aircraft carriers, but Japan, which used aircraft carriers offensively in World War II, is sensitive to the term. Together with the newly formed marines, Ospreys, hovercraft, and amphibious vehicles, Japan will soon have the ability to quickly reinforce — or take back — territory seized by another country.

As part of the loosening of restrictions on defense activities, Japan is relaxing a ban on arms exports to other countries. While Japanese goods at Eurosatory will be limited to security devices, bigger and more lethal merchandise is inevitable. It could be only a matter of time before Japanese defense contractors are as well known to the global arms market as Toyota and Sony are to the civilian consumer market.

Japan has recently announced a flurry of co-development deals with other countries, a process that was forbidden under the export ban. The United Kingdom and Japan are planning on co-developing chemical warfare protective clothing, and Australia wants Japanese submarine technology for its next generation of attack submarines.

Abe is also expanding the legal and policy framework under which the Self-Defense Forces can operate. The prime minister is pushing for Japan to embrace the concept of collective self-defense — that is, Japan's ability to protect allies and arm troops for peacekeeping missions. These are basic rights that are accorded to countries under international law, but that Japan has previously declined to assert.

Public opinion, though overwhelmingly against China, has not translated into support for broader military roles and increased participation abroad — let alone a wholesale revision of pacifist articles in the constitution, a long-held goal of Abe's. Abe is spending a great deal of political capital pushing his military reforms through, and if the economy stalls he might be forced to set those reforms aside.

Ironically, the best salesman for his agenda has been China itself. If China continues its aggressive posturing, Abe may find his job of selling a more muscular foreign policy that much easier.


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