Last month, Japan unveiled an ambitious, $320-billion, five-year defense plan to upgrade its defense capabilities and, at the same time, acquire strike capability to hit targets deep into what it considered the biggest threat in the region.
A hundred years ago, Imperial Japan went to Manchuria in search of resources to fuel its rapid industrialization and rise as a global power, having tasted victory at the expense of declining Tsarist Russia. The Romanovs did not survive after a humiliating defeat.
But Japan went too far. It wanted to dominate the region, defeating Western powers – the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Portugal – in the Asia and Pacific region and creating the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere.
However, the Japanese empire was short-lived. The United States returned and demonstrated its awesome military might, dropping two nuclear bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima – the only instances an atomic warhead was used in a war in modern times.
Japan’s humiliating defeat served as a lesson. It renounced war as a state instrument and adopted a pacifist constitution. In 1976, for instance, it adopted a policy to avoid building offensive weapons, such as carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It relied on the United States for its defense, hosting more than 50,000 American troops, fighter aircraft, and two carrier battle groups.
At that time, Tokyo was only concerned with North Korea and the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was the Cold War.
The world has changed. The security environment has evolved. New threats have emerged.
The USSR melted away but a more dangerous North Korea emerged, developing a nuclear arsenal and constantly testing its missile delivery capability, hurling for the first time in years a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.
First, there were the pirates in the Middle East forcing Japan to send coast guard vessels to patrol the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, escorting oil tankers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to its home ports in Japan.
Japan is dependent on oil imports to run its engine of growth but China’s dynamo was more efficient and effective, overtaking Tokyo as the world’s second largest economy behind the United States.
As China’s economy grew rapidly, Beijing began building its war machines and threatened not only the region but the world as it expanded its influence in the South Pacific, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East using checkbook diplomacy.
Its militia vessels have started harassing smaller littoral states in the region to create a buffer zone in the South China Sea as the United States and its Western allies, including Japan, stepped up freedom of navigation operations and overflights in the region.
In February 2022, Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine in an effort to create its own buffer zone against the rapid expansion of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Eastern Europe. Russia has lost most of its satellite states in Europe with Poland gaining strength as a beacon of democracy in the region. It has become one of Europe’s strongest military powers next to France and Germany.
In this part of the world, Japan felt insecure with Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, North Korea’s continued belligerence, and China’s march to become the world’s global superpower.
Japan has maritime and territorial disputes with both China and Russia, which has increased its air and sea patrols, making Tokyo more nervous.
There are fears that China might also invade self-ruled Taiwan to unite the two countries and attempt to control the Senkaku islands. Russia, in the north, could completely retake Kuril islands, which it administered at the end of the Second World War. It was a war booty won by Imperial Japan in its brief war against Russia in 1905.
Japan felt it was surrounded by its enemies, which grew stronger as it restrained itself from arming again.
Shinzo Abe started Japan’s military modernization, expanding its security role in the region with its coast guard holding drills with Southeast Asian countries and patrolling the waters in the Middle East.
Its capable navy joined the US-led annual multinational naval drills, the Rim of the Pacific exercises (RIMPAC), while conducting a series of air, sea, and ground exercises with the United States.
Fumio Kishida wanted to do more. He wanted to expand drills with other states, including the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and the Philippines. Tokyo already has security cooperation with three countries: Australia, India, and the United States, collectively known as the Quad.
Now, it wants a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines, inviting Manila to a trilateral army meeting with the United States last year. It was the first time for the Philippines to take part in a Japan-US military drill.
Based on a white paper, Japan plans to break its defense spending from 1 percent of GDP, raising it to 2 percent and making its defense budget the third largest largest behind the US and China.
Japan may have only a self-defense force but its military capabilities are far greater than the entire Southeast Asia combined.
It has aegis-equipped destroyers, diesel-electric submarines, advanced F35 fighters, and had converted its helicopter carriers into platforms for STOL fighter jets.
China has the numbers but Japan has better quality equipment. It now aims to build three types of precision-guided ballistic missiles capable of hitting deep into China as well as intercept missiles from China, North Korea, and Russia.
It also has plans to acquire attack and reconnaissance drones, satellite communications equipment, stealth fighters, helicopters, submarines, warships and heavy-lift transport jets. Japan has also allocated $5.6 billion to a joint project to develop a fighter aircraft with Italy and the United Kingdom.
Japan’s defense plan makes its neighbors nervous. It brings back horrors of Japan’s imperial ambitions during the first half of the 20th century.
The Philippines is, perhaps, one of the few countries that have fully embraced Japan’s coming out from the shadows of the United States.
Japan has been generous, donating second-hand planes and the bulk of spare parts for helicopters that extended the shelf life of the Philippine fleet of UH-1H.
Japan has also built its three-dimensional air defense radar and a fleet of ocean-going coast guard ships.
The Philippines could benefit much from closer relations with Japan. The two countries share common interests and deal with common security threats.
The Philippines will not oppose a re-armed Japan to balance the forces in the region. Let the Samurais draw their swords from their scabbards.