Tokyo's Missing Muscle

How Japan's Politics Derail its Military Strategy

Recent rhetoric concerning the East China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, makes it appear that the Japanese government is taking a tougher approach on foreign policy and military affairs. Its decision to purchase the disputed islands in September triggered outrage from China and spawned observations that Japan is veering toward the right.

But this move is not as aggressive as it might seem. In fact, it was designed to be anti-inflammatory -- keeping matters from going from bad to worse. It comes in response to the plans of hawkish Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who sought to purchase the islands by collecting public donations. Given Ishihara's aggressive nationalistic views, that purchase would have undoubtedly further escalated the dispute. The federal government's purchase, which blocked the efforts of the Tokyo metropolitan government, thus signals a conflict-averse approach.

To be sure, there are some signs that suggest a shift to the right. Citizens' awareness of territorial issues with China, South Korea, and Russia has indeed risen in recent years, and conservative politicians are dominating headlines with declarations of Japan's growing muscle: last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda vowed that he would "never compromise" on the territorial dispute with China. And even his rival, Shinzo Abe, former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has similarly pledged to defend Japan's territorial assets.

Even before the Senkaku spat, Noda argued in July that Japanese troops should be allowed to defend allies in combat -- a practice banned under the current interpretation of the country's pacifist constitution. And despite legal restrictions, Japan continues to have one of the largest and most capable armed forces in the world. Last year's defense budget of 4.7 trillion yen ($59.3 billion) was the sixth largest in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Japan's fleet of more than 100 warships outguns any other Asian power. And the government has decided to buy next-generation F-35 stealth fighters to replace its aging fighter fleet. After last year's tsunami, Tokyo quickly mobilized more than 100,000 troops -- an impressive logistical feat.  

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