The article originally appeared on India Today.
China has warned Japan against efforts to acquire F-35B stealth bombers and modify its existing Izumo class helicopter carriers to host them. Though there has been no official confirmation from Japan on the move, global media including Reuters have confirmed the development citing Japanese government sources.
Reminding Japan of its pledge to follow the path of militarization only for self-defence, Hua Chunying, the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry, said Japan must not forget the commitment made to the international community, “We urge Japan to adhere to the policy of “exclusive defence”, stay committed to the path of peaceful development, act cautiously in the area of military security and do more to enhance mutual trust between regional countries and promote peace and stability in the region, instead of the opposite.”
But while it may be convenient for China to quote a historical development to press Japan from acquiring advanced military capabilities like aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets, the truth is, times have changed. While Japan has proved itself as a peace-loving country in order to pay for excesses committed by its imperial forces that ended with the World War II, China has emerged as one of the most hardliner nations on earth with an expansionist mindset and is engaged in territorial disputes with many countries including Japan and India.
No one can forget the repeated war threats by the official Chinese media during the 73-day long Doklam standoff between China and India where China tried to usurp a disputed territory in Bhutan to build a road near the Indian border in order to gain strategic advantage.
What makes Chinese threat even more serious is the fact that the country that is run by an iron grip of dictatorial power, is now a major global power, both economically as well as militarily. In post-World War II era, it has fought wars with India and Vietnam to expand its borders, has built artificial islands to further its claims in the South China Sea in spite of global opposition, claims other islands and territories that are part of other countries and has been involved in countless skirmishes with its neighbouring countries on the issue.
THE NORTH KOREAN THREAT
Additionally, Japan is also facing a heightened threat from North Korea, a rogue country with China as its only ally. North Korea has already conducted almost half a dozen nuclear and ballistic missile tests including a hydrogen bomb and is threatening the world with nuclear war in response of the mounting pressure of global sanctions imposed on it for continuing with missile and nuclear programme.
In September, North Korea fired a missile over Japan. In October, it warned Japan of nuclear cloud over its skies if the country continued with its mission of pressuring North Korea to give up missile and nuclear programme. And in November, it launched its most advanced inter-continental ballistic missile that landed in the Sea of Japan. To add to the North Korean threat, there are credible intelligence reports that the country might be on the verge of starting production of biological weapons on military scale.
JAPAN CHINA RIVALRY
Japan and China has been traditional rivals. They have fought two full scale wars, in 1894-95 and from 1937 to 1945. The second Japan-China war was the largest Asian war of the 20th Century that cost millions of lives, especially in China. It has been such a sensitive issue in China that the country still observes state memorial for war victims and calls for a Japanese apology are routine.
And these two traditional rivals are vying for leadership role in Asia-Pacific. If China is trying to place itself at the centre of Asia-Pacific, its rivals, the US, Australia, Japan and India, are pushing for an Indo-Pacific vision of the reason. In his first national security strategy that he unveiled recently, US President Donald Trump, in fact, has termed China a strategic competitor while Japan, Australia and India as strategic friends.
The proposed quadrilateral has been a brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and can further increase Japan China rivalry, replacing the recent events of thaw in Japan-China ties based on points of mutual economic interests. Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping recently agreed for a new start to mend the bilateral ties as the peace and friendship agreement between the countries enters its 40th year in 2018.
Another issue that potential derail any Japan-China dialogue is China’s contentious claims in East and South China seas. China claims Japanese Senkaku islands in the East China Sea while Japan has been a vocal opponent of China’s militarization of South China Sea islands. Japan has been wary of China’s growing assertiveness in the East China Sea and Western Pacific and earlier this year, it had to rush a record number of fighter jets, significantly higher than the previous year, to Check Chinese activities.
The interplay of these factors make it essential for Japan to acquire military capability to act in self-defence on a scale that can counter missile and nuclear threat. And it cannot be done without advanced defence technologies like F-35A and F-35B fighter jets and the systems to host and launch them, i.e., the aircraft carriers.
Japan is acquiring 42 advanced F-35A stealth jets that require long runways and conventional take-off and landing. But to meet contingencies like a military hostility where missile attacks have destroyed its land runways or as is the case with remote Japanese islands, where only short runways are available, Japan’s ruling establishment is thinking to include F-35B stealth jets as well as these jets require short runways and can take-off and land vertically. The Izumo class helicopter carriers, that are 248 meters long, are designed in such a way that they can be modified and refitted to operate F-35Bs.
And doing so should not violate the spirit of Article 9 of Japanese constitution, as also interpreted by the Japanese establishment from time to time. Though the Article, shaped by the experiences of the World War II and the atomic bombs attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, literally means that Japan cannot maintain armed forces and war cannot be a mean to address international disputes, governments in Japan have reinterpreted it to raise a commendable self-defence force.
But, still Japan has no aircraft carriers. “Under its strictly defence-oriented policy, Japan has maintained that it cannot possess “attack aircraft carriers,” saying the vessels can be deemed offensive weapons that exceed the minimum capacity Japan needs for self-defence in light of the Constitution,” writes Japan Times.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to change that and “China’s growing maritime assertiveness” is central to the efforts, said Japan Times quoting government sources. Japan is currently debating if the Article 9 can be reviewed and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party “is weighing both moderate and drastic revisions.”