A thousand Japanese troops have been learning how to recapture territory in the face of enemy fire. While the shoreline may be California, the skills they are building could one day be used closer to home.
The two-week “Dawn Blitz” joint drills in June saw a Japanese Self-Defense Force ship launching a hovercraft designed to carry troops and heavy weaponry that roared onto the beach, watched by officers from the U.S. and Japan. Elite rangers rehearsed a night-time beach infiltration.
The operations reflect the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s interest in developing a Marine corps to counter what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government says are Chinese attempts to change the status quo in maritime disputes. With the LDP poised to win elections to parliament’s upper house this month, Abe will have a Diet majority to push through his legislation.
“There’s a fear of China in Japan that didn’t used to be there,” said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of international relations at Princeton University who advised then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on national security. “They know what kind of military capabilities the Chinese are developing and the threat that it poses,” he said, referring to Japan’s leadership.
The LDP -- which with coalition ally New Komeito will probably win a majority in the July 21 vote, according to a July 4-5 Yomiuri newspaper poll -- presented its proposals on May 30. Building on this year’s first rise in the defense budget in 11 years, the party wants consideration for buying first-strike weapons, such as cruise missiles, and a reinterpretation of the occupation-era constitution so Japan can defend its allies.
Abe, 58, will still be up against what polls show is popular unease with pushing the nation into capabilities it hasn’t had since the end of World War II, and the fiscal constraints of having the world’s largest debt burden. Any shift in focus away from the economy risks unsettling investors after a surge of about 41 percent in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average sparked by optimism about his plans to end two decades of malaise.
The New Komeito’s reluctance to embrace a tougher defense stance also raises the odds of the LDP’s proposals becoming diluted in a final plan due by December.
LDP hawks are undeterred, with China’s military spending outsizing Japan’s by $120.7 billion to $46.3 billion this year. China’s total is the world’s largest after the U.S.’s.
“Abe has presented himself as the guy who will defend Japanese interests, who will not bow to China’s behavior,” said Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, who spoke by phone from Beijing. “It’s very unclear how they will pay if everything he says has to come to realization.”
A potential nucleus for a Japanese marine force exists in the form of the Western Army Infantry Regiment, which was founded in 2002 with 660 troops to deal with contingencies on the islands that dot the ocean between Japan’s main islands and Taiwan, according to that year’s defense white paper.
China has lifted its amphibious capability, according to a report released by the U.S. Defense Department in May, with three brigades and two divisions deployed near the Taiwan Strait area, and its navy has 55 large and medium amphibious transport and landing ships. A Chinese marine brigade has about 5,000 troops, retired South Korean army colonel Lee Jae-hyung wrote in “China and the Asia-Pacific Region: Geostrategic Relations and a Naval Dimension,” published in 2003.
“China is steadily strengthening its military, so the capability of the Japanese and U.S. militaries must be boosted to counter that,” said Takeshi Iwaya, who heads the LDP defense committee that put together the party’s proposals. Otherwise, the alliance could “buckle” to China, he warned in an interview last month.
Japan’s reassessment of its military capability comes within the broader sweep of China’s increasing military, strategic and economic presence in Asia. Japan accused China of trying to change the regional status quo by force in a defense white paper.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that the July 9 report “maliciously hypes the so-called China threat in disregard of the basic facts.” “The normal and legitimate development of China’s national defense capability will pose no threat to any country,” Hua said yesterday.
Chinese and Japanese ships and aircraft have been tailing one another around disputed East China Sea islands -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- since the central Japanese government bought three of the islets in September from a private owner.
“Japan is improving its ability to deal with situations where China does not act in line with international law,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, referring to incursions into Japanese-controlled waters. “Working with the U.S. is important, but Japan needs to be able to defend its own territory.”
Members of the Western Army Infantry Regiment were among the 1,000 Japanese personnel who took part in the multilateral exercise in California in June.
“The Japanese are certainly not at the level of just put a couple guys on a boat and call it amphibious -- they’re way beyond that,” said Major General John J. Broadmeadow in an interview at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton after the exercise, the first overseas in which the three current branches of Japan’s military -- air, sea and land forces -- took part.
Japan set aside 2.5 billion yen this year to buy four amphibious vehicles and more to research the tiltrotor type aircraft used by the U.S., which can take off and land like helicopters aboard a relatively small ship, but fly long distances like fixed-wing planes.
The U.S. Marines have deployed the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey to capture a Taliban leader in Afghanistan and rescue an airman from Libya, as well as to transport water and medical supplies after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, according to Bell Helicopter Textron Inc’s website.
The Japanese are learning to integrate their military better, Broadmeadow said, incorporating lessons learned from the U.S. military’s Tomodachi relief operation following the March 2011 tsunami. During Dawn Blitz, Japanese soldiers and sailors sat side by side in a command center aboard a ship, where they could see both sea and land maps, Broadmeadow added, calling the setup “a tremendous accomplishment.”
While Japan’s forces are making strides in amphibious training, some in the ruling coalition are playing down the extent of the potential transformation. After the LDP submitted its plan for the national defense guidelines, New Komeito is compiling its own proposal.
“We are not considering anything like the capability the U.S. forces have,” said Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, in an interview last month. “We need cautious debate about how far it’s acceptable to strengthen the existing unit within purely defensive limits, so that no unnecessary threat is posed to neighboring countries.”
Yamaguchi said he is wary of any attempt to obtain pre-emptive strike capability and added budget increases will be limited as Japan’s social security burden balloons due to its aging and shrinking population.
A Yomiuri newspaper poll found 54 percent of respondents believed the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution -- under which Japan renounced the right to wage war or maintain military forces -- shouldn’t be changed, and 36 percent said it should. The paper polled 1,472 people by phone March 30-31 and gave no margin of error. Only about 6 percent of respondents to an Asahi newspaper poll cited diplomacy and security as the key issues for the election, against 25 percent for the economy. It surveyed 946 people by phone June 29-30, with no margin of error.
“Having a Marines-style force does not just mean being able to land, you must have the right equipment,” said Chiaki Akimoto, director of the Japan office of the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “It’s no simple matter and it costs a lot of money.”