The Izumo, a helicopter destroyer being converted into an aircraft carrier, is the lead ship of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force and emblematic of Japan's expanding military ambitions. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

In January, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono met with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Washington and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitzu Motegi met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Silicon Valley to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America and reaffirm their commitment to the alliance.

In particular, Esper noted that the two nations are cooperating to counter China and maintain order in the South and East China Seas.

On this occasion in a statement released by the White House, President Donald Trump said: “As the security environment continues to evolve and new challenges arise, it is essential that our Alliance further strengthen and deepen. I am confident that in the months and years ahead, Japan’s contributions to our mutual security will continue to grow, and the Alliance will continue to thrive.”

But Trump has also said more than once that Japan should pay more – perhaps four times more than the nearly US$2 billion per year it is now spending – to support American forces based in Japan.

In an Asia Times analysis published January 28, Grant Newsham reviews the potential replacement costs of the American military commitment to Japan – personnel; naval, air, missile and space capabilities; nuclear weapons; operational and maintenance expenses; stability and other intangibles – and comes to the conclusion that, in view of the Chinese threat, Japan is getting “the bargain of the century” and that “Tokyo might want to flourish its checkbook – even with Trump demanding $8 billion.”

Aside from the fact that this is politically impossible, it is pushing on an open door. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government want to spend more on defense, and they are spending more on defense. Since Abe returned to office in 2012, the Japanese defense budget has increased by almost 15%.

In fact, the general consensus in Japan is that Abe is too eager to increase defense spending – and too eager to revise Article 9 of the “Peace Constitution” (forced on Japan by the victorious Americans in 1947) in order to make Japan into a “normal country” with a “normal” military.

Article 9 reads:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

 Not quite a dead letter, it still serves as a brake on military spending and activity.

Nevertheless, in December the Japanese government approved a record high ¥5.3 trillion ($48.6 billion) draft defense budget for the new fiscal year, which begins on April 1. The eighth annual increase in a row, it will pay for F-35 fighter jets, Osprey transport aircraft, Aegis Ashore missile defense systems and other equipment made by American defense contractors.

Japan’s defense spending now exceeds the limit of 1% of GDP established by Prime Minister Takeo Miki in 1976. That limit was abolished by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1987, but remains a meaningful political constraint. In contrast, Trump is demanding that NATO members spend 2% of GDP on defense. The American defense budget for 1919 amounted to 3.2% of U.S. GDP as estimated by the IMF.

Exceeding the 1% limit is the latest in a long series of changes relaxing the constraints on Japan’s military and strengthening its alliance with the U.S.

It should be remembered that the current version of the Security Treaty, which amended the original treaty signed in 1951, was greeted by mass demonstrations and riots in Tokyo in 1960. It was rammed through the Diet after leftist opposition members attempting to block the vote were ejected by the police. That led to the cancellation of President Dwight Eisenhower’s planned visit to Japan and the resignation of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s grandfather).

It should also not be forgotten that using the martial-sounding word “alliance” instead of the cuddly term “friendship” to describe Japan’s relationship with the US was taboo until Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi broke precedent in 2001.

And even today – after years of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests and Chinese provocations around the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea – more than half of Japanese citizens polled are opposed to revising the constitution.

On the other hand, more than 40% support constitutional revision, indicating that Abe is getting closer to that goal. The best way of reaching it seems to be the constant pressure of facts – i.e., growing recognition of the threats to Japan’s security – not unreasonable demands.

It is annoyingly obvious that Trump’s insistence that Japan buy more “beautiful” American military hardware has as much or more to do with boosting exports as with national security. And the American reputation for profligate waste only feeds Japanese resistance to excessive and unnecessary spending.

Now let’s go back to the Newsham list – naval, air, missile, space and nuclear capabilities – and see how Japan stacks up and how integrated it is with US forces.

A catalog

Despite its Peace Constitution, Japan’s military is ranked fifth in Global Firepower’s 2020 Military Strength Ranking, after the United States, Russia, China and India. South Korea ranks sixth, followed by France and the U.K.

Japan has two Izumo-class aircraft carriers that can accommodate both helicopters and F-35B short take-off and vertical landing fighter jets, and two other helicopter carriers. China currently has two aircraft carriers in service (one a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine) and a third under construction.

Japan is the largest overseas buyer of F-35 aircraft, with orders placed for 105 F-35A and 42 F-35B models.

In total, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force operates 155 vessels, also including 40 destroyers and 20 submarines. These supplement some 200 vessels in the US Pacific Fleet, including the Seventh Fleet and Carrier Strike Group Five based in Yokosuka.

In addition to Aegis Ashore batteries equipped with Lockheed Martin solid state radar, Japan has a ballistic missile defense system combining Aegis destroyers and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 mobile systems.

Japan’s own ballistic missiles make North Korea’s look like toys, and are SLMB (submarine-launched ballistic missile) convertible. Do not forget that Japan’s HTV unmanned cargo spacecraft, lifted by launch vehicles made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, regularly deliver supplies to the International Space Station. And that Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, powered by NEC’s ion engine, landed on an asteroid, collected samples and brought them back to earth.

Japan has also developed advanced ground-to-space communications; space robotics capable of satellite assembly, capture and disassembly; and the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System that surveys the western Pacific and Asian mainland with greater accuracy than the American GPS system.

Japan’s re-entry technology is adaptable to multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) applications, which allow multiple nuclear warheads launched on one missile to be delivered to separate targets.

Enough plutonium

Citing Japan Atomic Energy Commission data,  Japan space and defense scholar and writer Paul Kallender says Japan has 47 tons of plutonium, “enough to make more than 5,000 nuclear bombs that can be placed on the world’s most advanced solid ballistic missile, the Epsilon. Add to that ‘standoff missiles’ [air-launched long-range cruise missiles], railguns, anti-satellite weapons, and a basket of other weapons systems and technologies that 99% of the Japanese public have no idea even exist.

“Since decisions taken in the late 1960s to ensure that it would become a shadow nuclear and military space power through its development of dual-use – military convertible – technologies, Japan has unwrapped its real capabilities, often hidden in plain sight, whenever needed,” added Kallender, a senior researcher at Keio Research Institute at SFC and co-author of In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy.

Kallender notes Japan’s “ability to suddenly convert its ‘peaceful purposes-only’ Earth observation satellites into spy satellites, or its ‘helicopter destroyers’ into aircraft carriers. But these are only tastes of what Japan could do if it feels it has to, across a broad spectrum of technologies and capacities. Fortunately perhaps, at least for the Japanese taxpayer, the ongoing RMA [Revolution in Military Affairs] in Japanese force capabilities is bottled within the updated US-Japan defense cooperation agreements.”

 The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) works closely with NASA,” Kallender observes. “And only a month after President Trump signed legislation establishing a US Space Force in December, Prime Minister Abe announced that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force will establish a “space operations squadron” to focus its efforts on space, cyber space and electronic warfare, in cooperation with the U.S.

“So, for example,” concluded Kallender, in addition to space-based ballistic missile defense warning “Japan will develop space-based on-orbit monitoring to counter Chinese ASAT [anti-satellite] weapons deployment…. But who remembers in 1997 when Japan developed its own de facto ASAT weapons system test experiment?”

Would we really want to pry this cooperation apart in the pursuit of more balanced bilateral trade?

Would we really want Japan to go it alone, perhaps fueled by resentment at being abandoned by the country it has relied upon and looked up to since 1945, considering that Japan’s trade with China is greater than its trade with the US, that Japan and Russia are a natural economic fit and have a shared interest in offsetting China and that Japan has no interest in America’s fight with Iran?

Would America be happy to retreat to Guam, Hawaii and the West Coast, abandoning an alliance with the world’s third largest and second most sophisticated economy? How would China, Southeast Asia and Australia react to this?

Japan is America’s front line in the Western Pacific, America has Japan’s back, and together they are far more powerful than China. How valuable is that?

Another Grant Newsham article maintains that the US-Japan relationship is “more fragile than imagined” – so fragile that it might be undone by the arrest and detention of former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn’s sidekick, American lawyer Greg Kelly – and that “Japan’s elite doesn’t value it all that much.”

But it does. On the anniversary of the signing of the Security Treaty, Prime Minister Abe said, “Today, more than ever, the Japan-US security treaty is a pillar that is indestructible, a pillar immovable, safeguarding peace in Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and in the world, while assuring prosperity therein.”

That having been said, there are limits to everything, including patience with the man who ditched the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. In an off-record conversation with a senior Japanese international bureaucrat, I said, “It seems that Donald Trump wants Japan to take care of itself.” His answer was, “We can do that. You might not like it, but we can do it.”

Let’s not do it.

Scott Foster is a partner and analyst with JA Research, Tokyo. A graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he specialized in Japanese politics, economics and language, he is the author of Stealth Japan: The Surprise Success of the World’s First Infomerc Economy (FiRe Books).

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