Japan recently cancelled the purchase of a key missile defense system from the United States. It is a testimony of Japan’s new approach to its defense policy – the most significant change since World War II.

Japan’s Shifting Geopolitical Perspective

Japan is inclined to adapt to the ever-changing geopolitical challenges the world presents. Now, leading security staffers from the Japanese government have suggested that Tokyo should reserve itself the right to facilitate preemptive strikes on missile bases of adversaries such as North Korea. Even though Japan’s Minister of Defense Tarō Kōno did not officially confirm the doctrine, which is controversial under international law, he stated that “no option” would be excluded moving forward.

The latter is the diplomatic version of the agenda Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed a few weeks ago. According to him, Japan’s National Security Council will have a thorough discussion this summer about the nature of the Japanese security strategy, during which “a new direction” ought to be set and put it into practice “promptly.”

Constitutional Changes Under Consideration

It is not merely empty rhetoric, as Abe is inclined to change the Japanese constitution to implement his vision. The latter refers to Article 9 of the constitution in particular. So far, the article had been interpreted in a way that Japanese self-defence forces can only defend Japan in the event of an attack. Preemptive use of force prior to an attack is prohibited via the constitution – for now – and thus not an option.

With these constitutional shackles in places, Japan had so far focused on expanding its already viable missile defense. Part of it is six warships that use the Aegis system to detect and launch shoot down missiles in the case of an attack. On land, Patriot missiles currently act as the second line of defense.

Most recently, Japan sought to purchase the land-based system Aegis Ashore from the United States. Now, however, Minister of Defense Kōno ceased the project.

Washington’s Reaction

It is a decision that surprised Washington. After all, it is incredibly unusual for a government to suddenly announce the termination of such an extensive program that had been at the heart of Japan’s defense strategy. Not only had the current defense strategy been based on Aegis Ashore, but so too had the medium-term defense plan, which should presumably have set the course until 2023.

Even more astonishing is that the government is risking its relationship with US President Donald Trump for the move. Other factors outweighed Tokyo’s concerns about Trump’s temper. One is the strong local resistance to missile defense deployment among the Japanese people, while the staggering costs of the project is another factor. Multiple delays due to local resistances and Lockheed’s solid-state radar system SPY-7 resulted in the cost of the project, doubling to more than five billion euros.

Nevertheless: Kōno’s conclusion illustrates Japan’s concerns after decades of Chinese armament and Beijing’s unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea and on the Indian border.

Japan Feels Threatened

The latter also strengthens Japan’s sense of threat as China increasingly aggressively claims the Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan. Japan’s air force and coast guard interfere with attempts by Chinese planes and ships into the region almost every day. Besides, Chinese submarines routinely circle the island kingdom not far from the territorial waters.

It is still an open question as to whether Abe can actually implement this change, of course. The country has one of the most modern war fleets in the world and has acquired helicopter carriers that are now to be converted into small aircraft carriers. On the one hand, the population is not yet convinced of the need for more armament and the heavily indebted nation lacks the financial means to increase the armaments budget so rapidly.

Nonetheless, in a region where China has been projecting its hegemonic ambitions ad nauseam, where North Korea is nuclear-armed, and the security interests of the United States and Japan are increasingly conflicting, Tokyo is now willing to adapt to the circumstances and flex its military muscles.

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