The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With eyes on China and Trump, Japan to invest in ‘aircraft carrier,’ F-35 fighters

In this Dec. 6, 2016, photo, a Japanese military helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck of the destroyer Izumo of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.
In this Dec. 6, 2016, photo, a Japanese military helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck of the destroyer Izumo of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to give his island nation what effectively is its first aircraft carrier since World War II and will announce plans to purchase dozens of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets as he grapples with a growing threat from China, according to defense guidelines and media reports.

The plans, constituting a major review of Japan’s defense strategy, were approved by a committee of the ruling coalition Tuesday and will be presented to the cabinet for approval next week.

Japan will announce plans to buy 40 to 50 F-35s over the next five years but may ultimately purchase 100 planes, media reports said. That will have the added benefit of mollifying President Trump, who has complained about the U.S. trade deficit with Japan as well as the cost of stationing tens of thousands of U.S. troops here. 

But the primary driver is Abe’s conviction that Japan, despite a pacifist constitution and culture, and the protection afforded by its alliance with the United States, needs to take its defense more seriously, experts said. Nevertheless, the move is already under fire, with critics saying it stirs up memories of Japan’s militaristic past. 

“The most important responsibility of the government is to protect the people and their peaceful lives,” Abe told a panel of national security experts Tuesday.

“Under the drastically changing security environment, in order to duly fulfill this responsibility, we have to fundamentally strengthen our preparedness to protect the people’s lives, property, territorial waters and airspace on our own.”

Abe talked of reforming “at a speed fundamentally different from before,” but experts say he actually is moving cautiously, mindful of widespread popular mistrust of anything that resembles militarization after the trauma of Japan’s defeat and ruin in World War II, when the country operated the largest carrier fleet in the world.

The defense guidelines said Japan wanted to build a fighter lineup that included short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft and, “in case of need, will take necessary measures that would enable STOVL to operate from the ships currently owned.”

That means buying the B-type F-35s that can take off vertically and would be able to operate on short runways, former defense minister Itsunori Onodera said in an interview.

Japan will also strengthen the deck of the Izumo, a flat-top ship that already carries helicopters, so that it can withstand the heat generated by F-35Bs when they take off and land, he said. 

But Onodera, who played a lead role in drafting the plans before leaving office in October, said Japan would stop short of refitting the ship to become a true aircraft carrier.

“That is not to operate Izumo as an aircraft carrier, but rather to refit it to make it possible for Type B [F-35s] to land and take off,” he said. “The idea is to make it responsive to various situations, including a case of accident or a sudden need for refueling. As you know, it would require a significant redesigning to make it operate as an aircraft carrier. That’s not what we are thinking about.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Defense insists that the two Izumo-class ships in the fleet will not be carriers but “multipurpose escort ships.”

Japan’s Abe stakes out new identity in Asia: Stronger leadership and wider military reach

But that has not stopped criticism from within Japan and from its rival China.

In an editorial, the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun argued that Abe was “crossing a red line,” a move it called unacceptable. 

“By introducing an aircraft carrier, Japan could make itself look more enthusiastic about a military buildup than it actually is,” it said. Countering China’s military rise will not be easy, it argued, but Japan needs a well-thought-out plan “that will not trigger a futile arms race in the region.”

Predictably, China’s nationalist Global Times newspaper also was critical, arguing last month in response to the Izumo plans that “an aggressive move like this may drive the country to repeat its militaristic history.”

But Japan’s conservative Sankei newspaper argued that the new guidelines did not go far enough, and it recommended that the country adopt significantly higher defense budgets and develop the capability to attack enemy bases as a form of “punitive retaliatory deterrence.”

In an op-ed, Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jeffrey Hornung of the Rand Corp. also argued that Abe’s plans might not be ambitious enough, given the threats from China and North Korea and his domestic challenges, including declining recruitment and a growing shortage of military personnel in a country whose population is shrinking

Among other steps, they recommend that Japan raise defense spending from its current 1 percent of gross domestic product toward the NATO target of 2 percent.

Japan’s constitution renounces war and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes, although Abe wants to revise the constitution to legitimize the defensive role of Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces.  

During last year’s tension with North Korea, Abe’s government also decided to buy two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense units from the United States, another groundbreaking step that was controversial here.

The refitting of the Izumo is designed to help Japan defend its 6,852 islands, which stretch over nearly 2,000 miles from southwest to northeast. A constant source of tension is the Senkaku islands, controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, which refers to them as the Diaoyu islands.

The 814-f00t Izumo, with a full-load displacement of 27,000 metric tons, is primarily designed for anti-submarine warfare. It is much smaller than the aircraft carriers operated by the U.S. Navy, which can reach up to 100,000 metric tons. 

“You can debate how much additional power-projection capability that gives you, but nothing signals political resolve like a carrier, which is exactly why the Chinese have two and are building a third and why we have multiple strike groups that we can sail around the world,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security. 

Although China and North Korea are the main threats facing Japan, Abe has also had to contend with a U.S. president who complains about the “massive” trade deficit the United States is running with Japan and the cost of the U.S. troop deployment here.

But before meeting Abe in Buenos Aires last month, Trump acknowledged that the deficit was decreasing and added: “Japan is buying large amounts of our fighter jets, our F-35s and others, and we appreciate it very much.”

Many experts say Abe has deftly managed a difficult relationship with Trump, including by reminding him that Japan pays a large share of the cost of the U.S. deployment. 

But not everyone in Japan is so enthusiastic about the rising share of weapons purchases coming from the United States.

In another article, the Asahi Shimbun argued that pressure to “buy American” is undermining Japan’s defense industry and its plans to develop its own stealth fighter. 

Others expressed similar concerns.

“Military equipment is falling from the sky as if the United States is forcing us to buy and use it,” journalist and national security expert Satoshi Tomisaka wrote in Bunshun Online

Okinawa’s new governor says Tokyo ‘disrespects democracy’ by allowing new U.S. base

Marine air crash off coast of Japan fuels concerns over safety

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news