Responsible actions over defence can ease tensions in the region
An arms race is not in the interests of East Asia, particularly in the face of economic challenges
East Asia does not need or want an arms race. Yet, as China modernises its sea and air capabilities, Japan is boosting defence spending and building vessels that are ever more powerful. The risk of conflict is rising as Chinese military exercises are conducted and Japanese fighter jets scrambled to counter perceived threats. Both nations face economic challenges and should be making the wisest possible use of their resources.
Beijing is aware of the need to be prudent with expenditure and expects to boost defence spending for the coming year by about 7 per cent, the lowest increase since 1991. But China’s growing power and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes have provided an excuse for Japan’s nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to lift his country’s military profile. Spending will be expanded by 1.4 per cent this year, the fifth consecutive annual rise. The shift comes despite the nation’s pacifist constitution, which allows only for a defence force.
Abe wants that altered, but change will be difficult given public sentiment. His government has therefore embarked on an expansion of the navy and air force with power projection in mind, although under the guise of defending Japan. The strategy is dangerous given mistrust towards the nation, which has never owned up to its militarist past. Next month, Japan will put on its greatest show of military force since the second world war. Its biggest warship, the 249-metre helicopter carrier the Izumo, will sail through the contested waters of the South China Sea before joining naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with the United States and India.
The mission will come less than six months after China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, made its maiden trip into the Western Pacific. China is building two more carriers and could in the future have between six and eight. There is no greater projection of blue-water might, but Japan’s constitution forbids such a vessel. The Izumo and a sister ship, the Kaga, which went into service last week, are designated as helicopter destroyers, although their size and capabilities make them akin to light aircraft carriers. Provocatively, the vessels also carry the names of imperial warships; the Izumo was Japan’s flag carrier in Shanghai during the attack on the city in 1937 while the Kaga was an aircraft carrier scuttled after being severely damaged by American bombers during the battle of Midway in 1942.
Tensions in the region have been raised by the military buildups and mistrust and, in Japan’s case, provocative behaviour. Greater transparency and communication are necessary, but so, too, is responsible action when it comes to defence.