Today, April 19, Japan sends two senior members of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Egypt.
That is significant, almost a rites-of-passage experience for Japan. Unlike most other countries, Japan doesn’t strictly have an army, just the SDF. The April 19 deployment is the first time SDF personnel will have been despatched on a mission not under UN auspices. They will be on the Sinai Peninsula and part of a US-led multinational peacekeeping mission to help monitor the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. That’s infinitely peaceable rather than warlike but it means a huge mental re-adjustment for Japan and for the wider world as it observes the country.
Japan has done penance for its actions in the years since World War II. The constraints of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution, which was written by occupying American forces after WWII, meant it had to abjure an army or any ability to make war.
But three years ago – March 2016 – new national laws came into force to enable the SDF to expand the scope of their activities overseas. This would include coming to the aid of allies and for the SDF to use its weapons in a wider range of circumstances while on UN peacekeeping missions. The change has come about at the behest of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sees Japan as a force for good in the world so long as it gets a chance to play more of a role on the international stage. Accordingly, Mr Abe created a political consensus for changing the constitution in small but significant ways.
China is watching carefully. Last month, a piece in the China Daily quoted Yu Qiang, an assistant professor of Japan Studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing. He critiqued the changes to Japan’s defence posture as follows: “Now, under the new ambiguously worded legislation, Japan’s SDF is allowed to exercise collective self-defense, and thus, there is no guarantee that the country could avoid the scenario depicted in the Article 9 of its Constitution, which is never ‘use of force as means of settling international disputes’.”
Chinese cautioun aside, there is every sign Japan intends to be present on the 21st-century world stage. As The Economist has reported, in December, the government said it would upgrade Izumo, Japan’s largest warship. Both the Izumo and another ship, the Kaga, will accommodate up to a dozen of the 147 f-35 fighter jets Japan recently ordered from America.
Mr Abe has already had a National Security Council in place for six years, one that puts out guidelines every five years. The one issued in December suggests a huge increase in defence-spending ($245 billion over the next five years). The Economist put that in context as follows: “it is more than Britain or France currently spend.”
Then again, Japan is acquiring new offensive capabilities – the F-35s on the Izumo and Kaga are a seaborne strike force. Then there is the acquisition of long-distance cruise missiles. Finally, there is the recommendation that Japan prepare for war in space, cyberspace and on the electromagnetic spectrum. The government has got going on that with an air force unit to track threats and boosting the numbers of those who track and fight cyber-intrusion.