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Japan's Defence White Paper: China & South Korea Speak Out

Japan's Defence White Paper: China & South Korea Speak Out

The recent defence White Paper which was released by the Japanese government has caused discord in East Asia, as both South Korea and China cite grave concerns over the content of Tokyo's military outline. Japan's latest defence paper outlines an increase in defence spending over the next five years as well as new acquisitions for the Japanese Self-Defense Naval Forces. The Paper also outlines Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's moves to ease restrictions on Japanese weapons exports. Japan is also seeking to emphasize the notion of collective peace and security; a rubric that would allow Japan to intervene militarily if an ally nation is under threat. To this end, Shinzo Abe announced in July that his cabinet had approved of a constitutional re-interpretation, which lifts the ban on Japanese troops fighting overseas.

While the Japanese government characterizes its defence policy and spending increase as a return to geopolitical normalcy, other nations, notably China view this trend as signs of a re-emerging Japanese militarism. The Chinese defence ministry claims that “Japan ignores the facts and deliberately embellishes the China threat as an excuse to adjust its military and security policies and expand arms manufacturing.” Sino-Japanese are at a nadir not seen for many years, with tensions between the two countries resulting in a lack of bilateral dialogue. Currently Shinzo Abe is seeking to arrange a leader's summit between himself and President Xi Jinping, as neither leader has met his counterpart since both came to power over 18 months ago.

Rather than scrapping Article Nine - the pacifist clause in the Japanese post-war constitution - Japan is seeking to remain true to its pacifist constitution, yet while still being able to fulfil it's treaty obligations to the United States. Japan's increased military spending and international assertiveness grates against its post-war pacifist constitution, yet Tokyo argues that it is largely seeking to operate as any 'normal' state does vis-à-vis its respective security concerns. Specifically, the Abe government cites the dual threats of North Korea and China as the key driving forces in determining Japanese defence policy. Repeated North Korean missile tests, combined with increased incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft into Japanese airspace has caused Japan to feel threatened. In 2013 Japanese fighters were scrambled 810 times, the highest amount in twenty-four years.

The recent establishment of a Chinese air defence identification zone over Japanese controlled islands caused outrage in Japan, which in turn has sought to re-engage with the United States, breathing new life into the mutual defence treaty, which following the Cold War had begun to chafe some quarters of the Japanese polity. Japan has lined up to purchase the F-35 Lightning II as well as an additional two or three Aegis equipped destroyers from the United States. Furthermore this year Japan is for the first time hosting joint coast guard drills with the United States, South Korea, Russia and Canada. China's air identification zone combined with the various disputes and naval clashes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has led Japan to describe Chinese actions as 'dangerous', which could "lead to unintentional consequences." This point was accentuated by the fact that following the release of the White Paper three Chinese coastguard vessels sailed into Japanese controlled twelve kilometre territorial waters around said islands.

In seeking the moral high ground, China regularly invokes Japan's wartime past as proof of Japan's untrustworthy nature, and views any increase in spending or procurement by Tokyo as slippery-slope militarism fuelled by WWII revanchism. By continually putting the focus on Japan, China seeks to distract from its own rapidly growing defence budget, one which by far exceeds any other Asia nation, and is second only to the U.S. While China's defence spending trajectory is meteoric, Beijing still feels insecure vis-à-vis Japan. Even disregarding the role of the U.S.-Japan defence treaty, Japan's military, notably its navy, remains greatly superior to China's, at least technologically if not in terms of gross tonnage.

Japan's navy is one of the newest and most advanced, as well as the second biggest among Asian nations. Japan has added many new vessels to its fleet in recent years, most notably the two new Izumo class helicopter destroyers (which China - rightly - calls aircraft carriers in all but name). Moreover Japan spends significantly less on defence as a percentage of GDP than China. China's economy is over twice the size of Japan, yet were Japan to match China's 2% of GDP level, it would reach $100billion, compared to China's $122billion. Such an increase is something which is currently restrained by Japan's pacifist constitution which places a 1% of GDP guideline on defence spending. This fact is an important factor why China views any reinterpretation of Article Nine and the Constitution in general which such trepidation.

Moreover, China gets less 'bang-for-its-buck' as its $122billion has to cover a vastly larger country, one which borders over a dozen other states (notably North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Afganistan and India). Consequently China's resources are widely dispersed. Conversely Japan, as an island nation is far more secure. Japan's entire eastern seaboard open onto the vast expanse of the empty Pacific, patrolled by allied American ships. The end of the Cold War as to a large extent diffused the Russian threat, while the other closest country, South Korea shares with Japan both democratic government and the United States as an ally. Consequently Japan can expend the entirety of its resources on dealing with China (and to a far lesser degree North Korea in the Sea of Japan) in the East China Sea. 

These geo-political realities in turn inform the way in which China deals with Japan and its attendant defence related issues. Following the release of the Paper, various Chinese media sources quickly responded, with Xinhua accusing Japan of “hyping up the China threat,” Beijing Times calling out Japanese actions as expansionism and The People's Daily describing the White Paper as “harbouring evil intentions.” This consistent message is not a surprise given that these news organs are closely linked to the Chinese government. In any case, such rhetoric is not new, as Beijing often invokes anti-Japanese sentiment in order to boost nationalism and collective identity as the CCP continues to shift into its post-communist identity. Similarly, Japan uses the spectre of China to bolster support amongst conservatives, but also more liberal voters who oppose China's human rights record.

While resistance from Beijing is expected, what is of interest is that alongside China, South Korea is also criticizing Japan, as the White Paper pronounced - with certainty - Japan's position on the territorial dispute surrounding Dokdo/Takeshima island. Both South Korea and Japan claim ownership over the island, part of a longstanding territorial dispute that has been largely eclipsed by the more prominent Sino-Japanese disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands further south. Seoul has been angered as a map in the White Paper shows the island in question labelled only as Takeshima, despite the fact that South Korea currently exercises sovereignty over the outcropping. Moreover, another map clearly delineates the borders of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), despite the boundaries still being negotiated over with Seoul.

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