A new dawn in Japan: How China is empowering its greatest rival

(From the National Interest)

By Richard Javad Heydarian

By adopting such broad legal language, and given the relatively open-ended nature of justifications for authorization of military force, Abe has empowered himself and his successors to dispatch the Self Defense Forces (SDF) with greater regularity and ease, specifically if it involves aiding an allied nation against a third-party aggressor. Any international conflict that affects Japan’s “right to seek happiness” or is perceived to threaten “other countries,” specifically allies such as the United States, can be used as justification to dispatch the SDF. Abe has had to use his parliamentary majority in both houses of the Japanese Diet to push through the security bill that permits collective security operations, even though, according to a poll published byAsahi Shimbun, a majority of voters (54 percent) oppose the bill, with an even greater number (68 percent) seeing no need for its expedient passage under the current parliamentary session. By sailing against public opinion, Abe has seen his approval ratings suffer a dramatic decline in recent months, now standing at only 36 percent.

Japanese Air Force F-15

Japanese Air Force F-15

Having comfortably secured his leadership position within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Abe is expected to remain Japan’s prime minister until 2018. This gives him ample opportunity to progressively recast the country’s foreign policy. Committed to recalibrating Japan’s postwar defense posturing, a cornerstone of his policy agenda, Abe seems unperturbed by popular opposition to his vision of a more self-reliant and capable Japan. He has displayed tremendous determination to achieve this goal, and his ruling coalition party is relishing a decisive return to power after years of perceived ineptitude under the rule of opposition DPJ party (2009-2012).

Reverse Tectonic Shift

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) reviews members of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) during the JSDF Air Review, to celebrate 60 years since the service's founding, at Hyakuri air base in Omitama, northeast of Tokyo

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) reviews members of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) during the JSDF Air Review, to celebrate 60 years since the service’s founding, at Hyakuri air base in Omitama, northeast of Tokyo

In Tokyo, there is a genuine sense of urgency, if not panic, over the rapid shift in the balance of military power between China and Japan in the last decade and a half. In the year 2000, Japan’s defense spending was 60 percent larger than that of China. By 2012, China’s defense budget was almost three times bigger. Even in qualitative terms, China was able to rapidly close the gap. While the bulk of Japan’s defense spending went to maintenance of existing hardware, China began investing in cutting-edge technology and new acquisitions. Today, China, for instance, is the only country aside from the United States that has two fifth-generation jetfighter prototypes, the J-20 and J-31, while its burgeoning Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities are putting it in a position to dominate adjacent waters, particularly the First Island Chain stretching from waters off the northern coast of Japan all the way to waters off the coast of Vietnam.

Dispensing with any ounce of diplomatic correctness, Japan’s latest defense White paper portrays China as a dangerous revisionist power that “has been continuing activities seen as high-handed to alter the status quo by force and has attempted to materialize its unilateral [territorial] claim without making compromises.” Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani warned that “China’s military development is of concern to the regional and international community, including our country,” reflecting how China’s behavior and military modernization has been a primary factor for Japan’s defense-policy recalibration in recent years. Despite a measure of diplomatic thaw between the two rivals, particularly since Abe’s high-profile meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping in late 2014, Tokyo and Beijing continue to flirt with confrontation in the East China Sea, while China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea is undermining freedom of (military and civilian) navigation across an artery of global trade. Read more

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