Tokyo moves to boost military in response to Chinese “provocations”

Published: September 18, 2013.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to loosen constitutional restrictions on the use of the country’s armed forces, in response to increasing military pressure from China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

On Wednesday Abe asked a legal committee to report by the end of the year on ways to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution — the so-called pacifist provision — so that Japan can have what he calls “ordinary armed forces.” The move comes as China has intensified its air and sea incursions into Japanese territorial waters and air space around the five uninhabited Senkaku Islands.

China claims to own the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. In the last year it has sent Coast Guard cutters into Japanese waters around the islands on 59 occasions. Chinese Air Force warplanes and, in the last few days, unmanned drone aircraft, have repeatedly flown into Japanese air space over the islands, prompting Tokyo to scramble its own fighters. 

After the latest incursion last week, Japanese officials warned their jet fighters may shoot down Chinese drones. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, also said Tokyo will consider stationing government officials on the islands to reinforce its sovereignty.

This brought an angry response from Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said if Japan takes “provocative” actions it must “accept the consequences.”

“We are resolute and determined to safeguard our territorial sovereignty,” Hong said. “We will not tolerate any provocative actions against China’s sovereignty.”

The long-standing dispute came to a boil last year when the captain of a Chinese trawler, found fishing in waters around the islands, was detained after he rammed a Japanese Coast Guard cutter. The incident sparked fervour among ultra nationalists in both China and Japan.

In an effort to calm the situation, the Japanese government bought three of the five islands from their private owner on September 11 last year. But the move backfired. Beijing interpreted the purchase as “nationalisation,” and began the campaign of incursions by its Coast Guard ships and armed forces.

A brief meeting between Abe and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia earlier this month failed to cool the issue. Indeed, the Chinese incursions have intensified in the days around the first anniversary of Tokyo’s purchase of the islands.

Even more threatening military displays have been held by all branches of China’s People’s Liberation Army on the East China Sea coast facing the Senkaku Islands. State-controlled Chinese media reported that an exercise was intended to “demonstrate the power projection of the People’s Liberation Army to the disputed Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.” It involved 40,000 soldiers of the 31st Army Group, warships from the East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet, and fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and bombers.

China has been engaged in a massive modernization and expansion of its armed forces since 1990. But despite Beijing’s evident determination to be able to project power overseas, in quality and sophistication its forces remain inferior to the Japanese military, whose systems and equipment are designed to allow joint operations with its major ally, the United States.

Tokyo, however, is restricted by Article 9 of the constitution, imposed on Japan by the U.S. after the Second World War, on how its forces can be used. The constitution allows Japan to maintain only sufficient “self-defence forces” to ensure the security of the country if it is attacked. Japan’s military is prohibited from either attacking another country or joining with allies in offensive operations, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the face of considerable public disquiet, successive Japanese governments have in recent years pushed the boundaries of Article 9. Japanese forces have provided logistical support for allied operations and Japanese naval vessels have joined the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Since his return to the prime ministership in December last year, Abe has made no secret of his wish to either revise Article 9 or reinterpret the section to allow greater freedom of action by Japan’s armed forces.

This is being encouraged by the U.S. administration of Barack Obama, which wants greater support from its allies as territorial disputes in Asia become more threatening, accompanied by a significant regional arms race.

Abe has repeatedly given two reasons for wanting to loosen restrictions on Japan’s military, neither of which is very convincing. One is to enable Japanese forces to counter-strike if a U.S. warship is attacked while on a joint exercise. The other is to allow Japan’s military to attempt to shoot down a missile aimed at the U.S.

Some Japanese legal experts say their military already has the authority to aid a U.S. vessel in a joint operation as part of its mission to defend Japan. As for shooting down a missile fired at the U.S., perhaps from China or North Korea, it’s highly questionable whether the current level of missile defence technology would allow such a feat.

Much more to the point were remarks by Abe earlier this month, remarks clearly pointing at China.

“We cannot look away from the reality of repeated provocations against our sovereignty, of the worsening safety and security situation surrounding our nation,” Abe said. “We must not conclude with a mere pretence that diverges from reality and thereby put strain on the self-defence forces that are on the ground.”

“We have continually walked the road of peace for 68 years after the end of the Second World War, with the U.S. security alliance as our bedrock. We can be proud of that. But this will not guarantee future peace,” he said.  

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe