The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii, conducts a flight test. Photo: US Defense Department

Japan has officially decided to scrap the deployment of the US-based Aegis Ashore, a land-based variant of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, in a move that has surprised many. The decision was apparently made because of the huge costs involved in running the project – the redesign needed to fix the safety concerns about interceptor missiles falling on residential areas were not found to be cost- or time-effective.

Moreover, the system would have acted as an outer layer of national protection for Japan, which already has seven Aegis-equipped destroyers. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, however, did not rule out the possibility of replacing the missile defense system with first-strike weapons in order to tackle the increasing threat from North Korea and China.  

Implementation of any first-strike capability would signal a fundamental shift in Japan’s military policies. With the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore deal and amid continuous threats from its neighbors, Japan definitely needs to step up its military posture.

Also read: Abe’s Aegis Ashore cancellation doesn’t add up

The aims for first-strike capability are actually in synergy with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution, by rewriting the war-deterring Article 9 that, if read literally, prohibits Japan from amassing war-making “potential.”

Written in the aftermath of World War II, Japan’s constitution does not take into account the country’s re-emergence as a global and regional power, something Abe has long wanted to change. Hence, in 2016-17, he set the 2020 target to amend the constitution – which would mainly ensure the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and bifurcation of public opinion on the topic, the goal has not yet been reached. 

The country is divided over its intention to acquire the first-strike capability, and the debate regarding the issue has been going on for years. Critics claim it is “unconstitutional,” while several strategists call it a necessary step toward self-defense.

In recent years, however, Japan’s tilt toward a self-defense angle has been quite evident. Over the years, it has purchased billions of dollars’ worth of advanced US defense equipment not only to shore up its military strength vis-à-vis an increasingly hostile North Korea but also to strengthen ties with the US.

The plan to purchase two Aegis Ashore units – one at Yamaguchi and one at Akita – was approved in 2017. The deal would have cost Japan about US$4.2 billion over three decades. But now Japan seems to be indicating to the US its unwillingness to sacrifice its national interests in order to comply with American demands.

Moreover, diplomatically, the move could provide Japan with an upper hand while dealing with the US, which of late has been rather demanding toward its allies for protecting its interests. Ground-based intermediate-range missile systems in the Western Pacific would have strategically boosted US capabilities in monitoring Russia and China, and Japan is an ideal partner in the Indo-Pacific region (save Tokyo’s economic dependency on Beijing). 

Further, while actively trying to move its manufacturing out of China by setting up a $2.2 billion fund, Japan is simultaneously starting its economic recovery in the post-pandemic era and realizes that the time to provoke China is not entirely ripe. Implementation of an anti-missile defense system could trigger an arms race in an already unstable region.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s continuing assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas and its recent standoffs with India have alarmed Japan. The detection of a foreign submarine, likely Chinese, off the island of Amami Oshima in June and China’s putting into service two nuclear submarines in April have increased Japan’s concerns. 

Moreover, though Japan has also been concerned about the technological and military advances in North Korea since the 1990s, of late, its threat perception has increased considerably. North Korea’s recent firing of two short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast into the Sea of Japan in late March this year only aggrandized Japan’s anxieties. 

Thus as East Asia’s arms race surges incrementally – amid China’s massive military upgrades, increased power projection capabilities, and advancement in naval and air assets; North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities irrespective of diplomatic breakthroughs in 2018; and South Korea’s military muscling up – Japan needs advanced plans and increased defense capabilities to fight against any uncalled-for situation. 

Japan has already approved a record draft defense budget for fiscal 2020, totaling $48.5 billion, which is a 1.1% increase from fiscal 2019 and the eighth straight annual increase in defense spending.

After the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore deal with the US, Japan will utilize the increased defense spending on looking for alternatives – such as acquiring first-strike capabilities, more early-warning aircraft, F-35 jet fighters, and drones that monitor the probability of missile attacks from another state – to reduce its dependency on the US, as well as to counter threats from China and North Korea. 

Besides, Japan’s cancellation of the US-made missile defense system highlights its intention to revise its national-security strategy toward self-reliance amid the changing security environment in the post-Covid world.

In the future, Japan’s changing security perceptions could lead to new cooperation deals with like-minded countries such as India and Australia. Japan and India already have strong bilateral ties and are natural allies, which could allow for greater defense collaboration. A similar replication of strengthening defense ties could be noticed with Australia.

Do these imply that East Asia’s arms race is moving to a new direction now? Possibly, and Tokyo is in no mood to lose this race. 

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Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.