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Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer Kurama (L) (Photo: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)
Image: Reuters

Defense or aggression?

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
September 6, 2013

Japan's Defense Ministry has applied for the largest budget increase in over two decades. Experts say the three percent hike is meant to counter a more assertive Chinese military amid territorial disputes.


Held every two years in the waters around Hawaii, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) is one of the largest maritime warfare drills conducted in the world. And with China increasingly investing in military hardware, the 2014 exercise is likely to be the most significant yet. Equally significant is that Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will be taking part in the exercise for the first time, at the invitation of the US.

"I would say that it reflects Japan's desire to strengthen its amphibious capabilities and its relationship with the US military - and of course it is a preparation for any contingency among the remote islands to the south of Japan," Masafumi Iida, a China expert at Japan's National Institute of Defense Studies, told DW.

Japanese forces took part in a small-scale drill with their US counterparts in California in July. And even though the Japanese troops' opponents were never identified by nationality, the scenario given for the exercise made it quite clear who it was aimed at.

Recapturing an island

The scenario: The 250 Japanese ground troops were tasked with recapturing a remote island which had been occupied by an "enemy" force. The Ground Self-Defense units were supported by four helicopters and three aircrafts from the Maritime Self-Defense Force. Naval assets that were used in the exercise included the new helicopter-destroyer Hyuga and the guided missile destroyer Atago, as well as a transport ship.

Demonstrators show slogans during the No Osprey protest in downtown Tokyo
Many Japanese are against military partnership with the USImage: imago stock&people

The scenario was unmistakably a demonstration of Japan's desire and ability to recapture the disputed Senkaku Islands, part of the Okinawa archipelago, which China claims sovereignty over and refers to as the Diaoyu chain. And Beijing clearly picked up on the theme of the exercise as it fired off a diplomatic complaint to Japan over the exercise.

Interestingly, Iida points out, the US has invited representatives of the Chinese navy to observe the drills.

"This will be a good and clear signal to the Chinese that the alliance between Washington and Tokyo is strong," he said. But more joint exercises with its closest ally is just one element of the new investment in Japan's military, with the Japanese ministry of defense filing a request with the government for a little over Y4.89 trillion (€37.34 billion) in its budget for the fiscal year that starts in April 2014.

F-35 interceptor and Osprey

Tokyo has committed itself to purchasing the F-35 interceptor to replace its fleet of aging F4 Phantom's and put it ahead of anything the Chinese or Russian air forces can deploy. The military is also putting the Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft through its paces, significant because it can operate off aircraft carriers - or a helicopter-carrier, such as the Hyuga - and is designed to deliver larger numbers of troops to a battlefield more rapidly than a conventional helicopter.

The feasibility of deploying Global Hawk remotely piloted drones is also being considered as early as 2015, along with two amphibious vehicles, while steps are already under way here to create a new unit based closely on the US Marines. Other funding will be earmarked for defensive measures against cyber and missile attacks.

Jun Okumura, a political analyst with political risk consultants, the Eurasia Group, points out that the shift in Japan's defense posture is an ongoing one.

"Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a gradual shift from an emphasis on ground forces to protect the mainland from a conventional invasion by the Soviet Union to dealing with a threat from China that would come by way of Japan's southern islands," he said.

All of Japan's recent defense spending has been geared to facing that threat to Japanese territory and the exclusive economic zones that surround Japanese sovereign territory, he said.

Opposition to military spending

Japan Coast Guard vessel Awagumo (R) approaches a Japanese fishing boat to warn it not to enter waters within one nautical mile from Uotsuri island (background), a part of known as Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea (REUTERS/Kyodo)
China claims sovereignty over disputed Senkaku IslandsImage: Reuters

Not everyone in Japan agrees with the government's policy of investing trillions of yen in the armed forces to protect the nation against aggression, however.

"It is vital to map out an effective diplomatic and security strategy based on a cool-headed, multi-angle analysis of the international environment," said the left-leaning Asahi newspaper in a recent editorial. "The government then needs to define the missions of the SDF under the strategy and secure equipment the SDF needs to accomplish them."

It also called on the government to explain the strategy and roles of the SDF to audiences both at home and abroad in order to quell any suspicions that Japan is developing an offensive capability.

"If Japan's defense policy creates suspicion among other countries, the security environment for the nation will only get worse," the paper said.

"It is simplistic to believe the nation can be made safer just by reinforcing its defense equipment," it added. "There can be absolutely no argument for purchasing weapons just so Japan can boast it is an important customer for the US military industry."

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