china opposes japan's aggressive military build-up plans, india backs japan

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Beijing has predictably opposed Japan’s adoption of a new defence policy on Tuesday that abandons almost three quarters of a century of self-imposed military restraint. In a game-changing decision, Tokyo has substantially raised defence expenditure over the next five years, and decided to convert its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers that will embark cutting-edge F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters.

Japan is poised to become the world’s largest operator of F-35s outside the US. Its original order of 42 F-35A fighters has already begun deploying in Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) bases. On Tuesday, Japan’s new “National Defence Program Guidelines” and “Medium-Term Defence Program” envision buying 63 more F-35As and 42 F-35Bs – the short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant that flies off aircraft carriers. Once delivered, Japan’s fleet of 147 F-35s will be larger than the UK’s fleet of 138 F-35s and behind only the US.

Japan has not fielded aircraft carriers since the end of World War Two, regarding carriers as offensive weapons that violate the Article 9 of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution that states: “Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

China’s foreign ministry was quick to tap into regional fears of Japanese militarism. “Due to what happened in history, Japan’s moves on the military security front have been closely followed by its neighbouring countries in Asia and the international community at large. We urge Japan to keep its commitment to the ‘purely defensive defence’ strategy, stay committed to the path of peaceful development and act cautiously in the area of military security,” said China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday.

Beijing has always pooh-poohed Japan’s professed pacifism, and referred to the Izumo helicopter destroyer and its sister ship, Kaga, as “aircraft carriers in disguise”.

Japan’s two proposed carriers will complicate Beijing’s naval air power calculus, which must already cater for 11 US aircraft carriers (of which five-six could be deployed against China at any given time) and two Indian carriers, of which one is in service and the other nearing completion. A third Indian carrier is expected by 2030.

To counter these threats, Chinese defence experts stated earlier this month that the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), would operate five-to-six carriers, including two nuclear powered vessels. The first two carriers have already been built and the third is being constructed in Shanghai.

Japan’s defence ministry on Tuesday cited Beijing’s growing military power and its belligerence in the South China Sea to justify boosting defence capabilities.

Tokyo pointed out that Beijing had increased defence spending 12-fold in the last two decades. The PLA(N) operated 57 capital warships compared to 47 fielded by the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF). The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) flies about 850 fourth and fifth generation fighters – thrice as many as the JASDF.

Tokyo, which also worries about China occupying its outlying islands, is also looking to buy long-range missiles from the US – such as the joint air-to-surface standoff missile (JASSM) that can be fired from 900 kilometres away.

Since 1951, US-Japan security pacts have mandated that the defence of Japan would be the responsibility of Japanese “self defence forces”, while strike missions would be carried out by American forces stationed in Japan. Now, with the JSDF operating aircraft carriers and strike missiles, those roles will be blurred.

Article 9, which was imposed by Washington on a defeated Japan in 1945 states: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Sources say New Delhi has quietly welcomed the Japanese decision, given that the growing military cooperation with Tokyo rests on a common apprehension of Chinese expansionism. Two years ago, Japan began participating in the trilateral US-Japan-India annual Exercise Malabar.

On November 30, cooperation with Japan intensified with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe meeting together with President Donald Trump for the first ever Japan-America-India (JAI) summit. Modi termed it a “historic meeting” and tweeted: “Close cooperation among these nations augurs well for world peace and stability.”

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