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Japan Looks to Build Up Military       12/06 06:19

   

   ENIWA, Japan (AP) -- Dozens of tanks and soldiers fired explosives and 
machine guns in drills Monday on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, a main 
stronghold for a nation that is perhaps the world's least-known military 
powerhouse.

   Just across the sea from rival Russia, Japan opened up its humbly named Self 
Defense Force's firing exercises to the media in a display of public firepower 
that coincides with a recent escalation of Chinese and Russian military moves 
around Japanese territory.

   The drills, which foreign journalists rarely have a chance to witness, will 
continue for nine days and include about 1,300 Ground Self Defense Force 
troops. On Monday, as hundreds of soldiers cheered from the sidelines and waved 
unit flags, lines of tanks shot at targets meant to represent enemy missiles or 
armored vehicles.

   The exercises illuminate a fascinating, easy-to-miss point. Japan, despite 
an officially pacifist constitution written when memories of its World War II 
rampage were still fresh -- and painful -- boasts a military that puts all but 
a few nations to shame.

   And, with a host of threats lurking in Northeast Asia, its hawkish leaders 
are eager for more.

   It's not an easy sell. In a nation still reviled by many of its neighbors 
for its past military actions, and where domestic pacifism runs high, any 
military buildup is controversial.

   Japan has focused on its defensive capabilities and carefully avoids using 
the word "military" for its troops. But as it looks to defend its territorial 
and military interests against an assertive China, North Korea and Russia, 
officials in Tokyo are pushing citizens to put aside widespread unease over a 
more robust role for the military and support increased defense spending.

   As it is, tens of billions of dollars each year have built an arsenal of 
nearly 1,000 warplanes and dozens of destroyers and submarines. Japan's forces 
rival those of Britain and France, and show no sign of slowing down in a 
pursuit of the best equipment and weapons money can buy.

   Not everyone agrees with this buildup. Critics, both Japan's neighbors and 
at home, urge Tokyo to learn from its past and pull back from military 
expansion.

   There's also domestic wariness over nuclear weapons. Japan, the only nation 
to have atomic bombs dropped on it in war, possesses no nuclear deterrent, 
unlike other top global militaries, and relies on the so-called U.S. nuclear 
umbrella.

   Proponents of the new military muscle flexing, however, say the expansion is 
well-timed and crucial to the Japanese alliance with Washington.

   China and Russia have stepped up military cooperation in recent years in an 
attempt to counter growing U.S.-led regional partnerships.

   In October, a fleet of five warships each from China and Russia circled 
Japan as they traveled through the Pacific to the East China Sea. Last month, 
their warplanes flew together near Japan's airspace, causing Japanese fighter 
jets to scramble. In fiscal year 2020 through March, Japanese fighters 
scrambled more than 700 times -- two-thirds against Chinese warplanes, with the 
remainder mostly against Russians -- the Defense Ministry said.

   Russia's military also recently deployed coastal defense missile systems, 
the Bastion, near disputed islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido.

   Japan was disarmed after its WW II defeat. But a month after the Korean War 
began in 1950, U.S. occupation forces in Japan created a 75,000-member lightly 
armed de facto army called the National Police Reserve. The Self Defense Force, 
the country's current military, was founded in 1954.

   Today, Japan is ranked fifth globally in overall military power after the 
United States, Russia, China and India, and its defense budget ranked sixth in 
the 2021 ranking of 140 countries by the Global Firepower rating site.

   During archconservative former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more than 
eight-year rule, which ended a year ago, Japan significantly expanded its 
military role and budget. Abe also watered down the war-renouncing Article 9 of 
the constitution in 2015, allowing Japan to come to the defense of the United 
States and other partner nations.

   Japan has rapidly stepped up its military role in its alliance with 
Washington, and has made more purchases of costly American weapons and 
equipment, including fighter jets and missile interceptors.

   "Japan faces different risks coming from multiple fronts," said defense 
expert Heigo Sato, a professor at the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku 
University in Tokyo.

   Among those risks are North Korea's increased willingness to test 
high-powered missiles and other weapons, provocations by armed Chinese fishing 
boats and coast guard ships, and Russia's deployment of missiles and naval 
forces.

   One of North Korea's missiles flew over Hokkaido, landing in the Pacific in 
2017. In September, another fell within the 200-nautical mile exclusive 
economic zone off northwestern Japan.

   Under a bilateral security pact, Japan hosts about 50,000 U.S. troops, 
mostly on the southern island of Okinawa, which, along with Japanese units in 
Hokkaido, are strategically crucial to the U.S. presence in the Pacific.

   Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, said 
during his first troop review that he would consider "all options," including 
possibly pursuing pre-emptive strike capabilities to further "increase Japan's 
defense power" -- a divisive issue that opponents say violates the constitution.

   Japan has more than 900 warplanes, 48 destroyers, including eight Aegis 
missile-combating systems, and 20 submarines. That exceeds Britain, Germany and 
Italy. Japan is also buying 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs, making it the 
largest user of American stealth fighters outside of the United States, where 
353 are to be deployed.

   Their deployment is crucial for Japanese defense in the Indo-Pacific, and 
the country is now retrofitting two flattops, the Izumo and Kaga, as the 
country's first aircraft carriers since the end of the World War II.

   Among Japan's biggest worries is China's increased naval activity, including 
an aircraft carrier that has been repeatedly spotted off Japan's southern 
coasts.

   Japan has customarily maintained a defense budget cap at 1% of its GDP, 
though in recent years the country has faced calls from Washington to spend 
more.

   Kishida says he is open to doubling the cap to the NATO standard of 2%.

   As a first step, his Cabinet recently approved a 770 billion yen ($6.8 
billion) extra budget for the fiscal year to accelerate missile defense and 
reconnaissance activity around Japanese territorial seas and airspace, and to 
bolster mobility and emergency responses to defend its remote East China Sea 
islands. That would bring the 2021 defense spending total to 6.1 trillion yen 
($53.2 billion), up 15% from the previous year, and 1.09% of Japan's GDP.

   Experts say a defense budget increase is the price Japan must pay now to 
make up for a shortfall during much of the postwar era, when the country 
prioritized economic growth over national security.

   As China is playing tough in the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan has emerged as 
a regional flashpoint, with Japan, the United States and other democracies 
developing closer ties with the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as a 
renegade territory to be united by force if necessary.

   China's buildup of military facilities in the South China Sea has heightened 
Tokyo's concerns in the East China Sea, where the Japanese-controlled Senkaku 
islands are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu. China has sent a 
fleet of armed coast guard boats to routinely circle them and to go in and out 
of Japanese-claimed waters, sometimes chasing Japanese fishing boats in the 
area.

   Japan deploys PAC3 land-to-air missile interceptors on its westernmost 
island of Yonaguni, which is only 110 kilometers (68 miles) east of Taiwan.

   In part because of a relative decline of America's global influence, Japan 
has expanded military partnerships and joint exercises beyond its alliance with 
the United States, including with Australia, Canada, Britain, France and other 
European countries, as well as in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 
Japan also cooperates with NATO.

   Despite the government's argument that more is needed, there are worries 
domestically over Japan's rapid expansion of defense capabilities and costs.

   "Although the defense policy needs to respond flexibly to changes in the 
national security environment, a soaring defense budget could cause neighboring 
countries to misunderstand that Japan is becoming a military power and 
accelerate an arms race," the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun said in a recent 
editorial.

 
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