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Asia

Japan to 'bolster defense' of disputed islands

Japan's Defense Ministry is looking for its biggest budget hike in 22 years. Japan expert Alessio Patalano says Tokyo is seeking to enhance its defense of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are also claimed by China.

According to media reports, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that Tokyo cannot afford to be complacent in the face of significant security issues in the region. His ministry announced last week it is seeking a three percent increase in defense spending for the coming year, the biggest increase it has requested in over two decades.

The budget hike is said to reflect growing concern in the Asian country that it must act to counter a more assertive Chinese military. In a DW interview Alessio Patalano, an expert on security issues in East Asia, said the budget increase is important for the defense establishment in Tokyo to keep a credible deterrence posture to prevent any change of status quo in the East China Sea.

DW: China recently started operating its first aircraft carrier and is reportedly planning to build more. India unveiled its first indigenous aircraft carrier and Japan launched its biggest warship since World War II. Are we seeing the beginning of an arms race in Asia?

Alessio Patalano: Some have argued that this is the case. I think it's too early to tell. Of course, regional state actors are watching carefully what the others are doing, but the action-reaction mechanics intrinsic to an arms race are not there.

The current build-up programs are the results of long-term planned replacements of existing capabilities, of policies aiming to serve wider security interests beyond the simple countering of a regional peer competitor, and of changing perceptions of regional military capabilities. In all, the picture is more complex than the one that the label arms race can capture. 

Why is the Japanese Defense Ministry saying it needs to boost the country's defense capabilities?

Professor Dr. Alessio Patalano (Photo: private)

Patalano says complementing its existing military capabilities

Japan is currently complementing its existing military capabilities with a limited expeditionary component and enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that gauge the geographic shift of Japanese defense priorities.

Since the early 2000s, Japanese authorities have recognized the need to bolster their defense of the more geographically distant parts of the archipelago in the East China Sea, and this new request is designed to complete that process.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also seeking to revise the country's post war constitution. What is the Japanese government really aiming at?

The revision of the constitution has been on the national political agenda for a long time. This is something that seems to be important for PM Abe but that will require time and discussion to be pursued, especially because some of the proposed changes have little to do with defense.

The government's priority is economic recovery and in broader terms it seems that Abe wishes to show a stronger leadership and charisma to create confidence domestically and internationally. This is something that has been missing in Japanese politics for some time.

What message is Tokyo sending to its neighbors, who harbor bitter memories of Japan's militarist past?

One has to remember that in Northeast Asia, the legacy of the past, from Japan's imperial expansion, to the Chinese civil war, to the Korean War, left deep scars. These scars are today a powerful political tool mobilized by the different governments to gain domestic legitimacy as well as regional advantages.

In this respect, the issue is not just what message Tokyo is sending, but which messages are chosen in Beijing or Seoul as 'representative' of Tokyo's intentions. PM Abe's message on Japan's 68th anniversary of its surrender in World War II, in which he pledged Japan would make contributions to lasting world peace, was very constructive, but it was offset by the visits of some parliamentary members to Yasukuni Shrine.

The key is to understand what messages are designed to cater domestic constituencies, and what messages for an international audience, a difficult distinction to make given the weight of the past.

What kind of weaponry and military equipment is Tokyo planning to procure?

The procurement of basic amphibious vehicles, drones, new destroyers, and possibly anti-air defense capabilities are all being discussed as key assets to implement a reposturing towards the southwest part of Japan.

What role does the dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands play in this case?

As part of the wider defense of offshore islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu are under Japanese administrative control, and therefore it is important for the defense establishment to keep a credible deterrence posture to prevent any change of status quo.

Is an increase of Japan's defense capabilities really the best way for the Abe administration to deal with the current geopolitical challenges?

Minamikojima, Kitakojima and Uotsuri islands, part of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are known in China as Diaoyu and in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai. (Photo: Kyodo)

Patalano says Japan is seeking to maintain the status in the East China Sea

The question is not whether it is the best way or not. It is part of a set of responses, alongside the even more significant economic, social and political reforms currently set forth by the government under the umbrella of Abenomics, and in support of initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What matters is that this response is in line with the trends of the past decade and that therefore doesn't represent a radical departure from a defense-oriented posture.

Alessio Patalano is a lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King's College London, and specializes in Japanese naval history and strategy and contemporary maritime issues in East Asia. He is also the Director of the Asian Security & Warfare Research Group and Research Associate at the King's China Institute.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez