Japan is stepping up its rearmament with plans to create a marine unit and acquire longer-range rockets and other offensive weapons systems on the pretext of fending off security threats from China and North Korea.
The moves have once again unnerved South Korea and China ― the two major victims of Japan’s past militarism ― and escalated concerns that they could trigger an arms race in East Asia and further destabilize the regional security landscape.
Tokyo reportedly plans to launch a preparatory unit next year to establish a marine corps, and introduce a series of amphibious landing vehicles and advanced transport aircraft. It also has a schedule to launch the solid-fuel “Epsilon” rocket next Tuesday, which is capable of converting into an intercontinental ballistic missile.
These plans have rekindled a long-simmering debate over whether the archipelago state is reverting to its militaristic national strategy or just pursuing a “normal” state with a full-fledged military to shoulder a greater role for regional peace and stability.
Harboring deep-rooted resentment, Korea and China construe Japan’s military buildup as a disturbing revival of its brutal militarism seen a hundred years ago.
They also argue Tokyo’s pursuit of offensive military assets such as marines and stealth warplanes signal a shift from its long-held “exclusively defense-oriented” policy. They point to its efforts to institute the right to collective self-defense and alter the war-renouncing constitution in support of their claim.
But some analysts cautioned against an exaggeration of Japan’s defense policy, while expressing concerns that Tokyo’s military buildup is a destabilizing factor in the region facing power shifts with the rise of China.
“When Japan had its militaristic national strategy, it had warlike military leaders and its neighbors such as China and Korea were weak. But now there is no room for such militarism to come into with stronger neighbors and constraints under the U.S.-Japan alliance,” said Park Young-june, Japan expert at Korea National Defense University.
“What is worrisome, however, is that Japan’s rearmament would be met with China’s reaction, which could cause regional instability. On top of that, it also runs counter to Seoul’s policy to build a strategic partnership with Beijing.”
Whatever Japan’s intentions may be, the most serious problem with Japan is its lack of efforts to garner trust from neighboring states, observers noted.
Japanese politicians including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have churned out remorseless remarks about its colonial past and refused to take measures to heal the scars of the victims of its war crimes including the sexual enslavement of Asian women.
From Washington’s perspective, Japan’s reemergence as a military power serves its interest to a certain degree as China is becoming increasingly assertive and posing challenges to the U.S.’ protection of so-called global commons such as freedom of navigation in the western Pacific.
Analysts said the U.S. has indeed encouraged Japan to rearm to keep China in check and to maintain the regional balance of power, which Washington thinks has been undermined due to China’s aggressive pursuit of maritime interests.
“In my view, the U.S. appears to think Japan is still far from rearmament and encourages it to contribute to regional peace and security ― commensurate with its economic status,” said Lee Choon-kun, security expert at the Korea Economic Research Institute.
“It is part of the reason why Washington supports Japan’s economic revitalization.”
Buoyed by a victory in the upper-house elections, Shinzo Abe’s pursuit of a “strong” Japan has gained traction.
Abe’s conservative nationalist agenda has gained popularity as he has sought to shore up Japan’s national pride sapped by the rise of China, two decades of economic malaise and social anxiety stemming from natural, manmade disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011.
Under the so-called Yoshida doctrine, a postwar national strategy centering on economic rehabilitation based on security backing from the U.S., Japan had long refrained from military rearmament.
But as the international community has called for Japan’s greater security contributions since the 1990s, Tokyo has sought to explore a new national identity. With nationalist, unapologetic right-wingers reviving the memories of its past militarism, Tokyo’s moves toward rearmament have nonetheless been met with strong resistance from neighboring states.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org