The biggest geopolitical buzzword in the Asia-Pacific today is the re-militarisation of Japan. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to breach the political and possibly even constitutional barriers to re-arming Japan when he wins upper house elections in July, giving him a majority in both houses of the Diet. India will be a beneficiary on all accounts.
New Delhi, which broadly sees any addition to Japanese power as a reduction in that of China, is contemplating weapons purchases and defence technology cooperation. “We have no objections to Japanese re-militarisation,” say Indian officials privately.
Japan’s rediscovery of its samurai ethic is a direct fallout of its cat-and-mouse territorial squabbles with China — and an uneasiness about the United States commitment to Asian security. But it is also part and parcel of a conservative Japanese political agenda of overall policy of national regeneration in both the economic and security spheres.
Japanese officials see ‘re-militarisation’ taking place in four ways.
One, is simply spending more on defence. Abe gave a symbolic increase to the defence budget when elected earlier this year. Any substantial increase, say defence officials, will have to await a clear uptick in Japan’s economy. But if Japan were to merely raise its defence expenditure as a share of GDP to the same level as China — in other words from one to two percentage points — it would become the third-largest military spender in the world.
Two, is overseas defence technology cooperation and arms sales. This would help subsidise Japan’s rearmament and help it keep its lead as the technologically most sophisticated Asian military. India will be the first customer for Japanese military-capable equipment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s present visit saw India commit to buying Japan’s SU-2 flying boats.
Abe hopes this will be the thin edge of the arms export wedge. At present, the SU-2 will be sold minus the identify-friend-or-foe avionics that the Indian Navy would require. The real potential, however, lies in Japan and India designing and building defence equipment together — combining Japan’s manufacturing and design excellence with Indian software skills and experience in scaling down costs. Says a former Indian ambassador to Japan, India should look to Japan’s world-class maritime surveillance and minesweeping capabilities for low-hanging fruit.
Three, is the creation of a Japanese national security council that would include at least three Cabinet ministers and provide an institutional basis for a more muscular Japanese foreign policy. This will give India, which continues to run into mid-level bureaucratic scepticism in Tokyo towards closer ties, a one-window clearance site for policy initiatives.
Four, either amending or reinterpreting the Constitution to allow the Japanese military to, first, participate in collective defense and, second, carry out offensive action. An amendment is seen as difficult because it requires a two-thirds legislative majority.
The first Abe government constituted a council on security legislation in 2007 to find ways Japan could participate in collective security. Conservative commentators argue the best way would be to define what Japan cannot do militarily and thus legalise everything else. The ban on collective self-defence is more a norm than a clear constitutional directive and could be overturned given Abe’s electoral successes.
One option is nuclear weaponisation. Though the Constitution is silent on this as a nuclear deterrent is doctrinally non-offensive, it would require Japan to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and run into fierce anti-nuclear public sentiment.
China refracts all this through its bloody experience of Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and 40s. Many Southeast Asian nations also cringe, given their own experience of Japanese military occupation. But a number of them, including Vietnam and the Philippines, will give a guarded welcome to a Japanese defence boost because of their greater concerns about an assertive Beijing.
New Delhi has little sympathy for Beijing’s line: India has no such wartime hangups and, in the view of many Indian officials, China’s own bully-boy tactics are helping Abe to push his military agenda.
Nonetheless, the standard lines that Japanese right-wingers have taken over World War II atrocities like the Rape of Nanking and ‘comfort women’ means that regional legitimacy — and thus acceptance — of Japanese re-militarisation will remain difficult.
Scholars have argued Japan’s stance emerges from its own sense of victimisation regarding the legally-dubious Tokyo war crimes tribunal. India could potentially help in tackling this moral ghost given an Indian judge provided the only dissenting opinion during that tribunal.
One sign that the times are changing: the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces deployed off Somalia have taken to identifying themselves as the ‘Japanese Navy’ when confronting pirates.