Sumo matches may have been an apt backdrop for U.S President Donald Trump’s 4-day state visit to Japan, which concluded earlier this week. Trump came home with a confirmed order for a further 105 F-35 stealth fighters in his pocket.
The deal was originally announced in December 2018. Defense Blog notes that “The Japanese government first placed an order for 42 F-35As in December 2011…by December 2018… it was reported that Tokyo would be adding 63 F-35As and 42 F-35B variants to its order, in addition to” the original order.
The purchase means that, to date, Japan will have more F-35s than any other single U.S. ally. Japan’s order is also a manifestation of a key plank in Japan’s recent approach to international affairs. In 2017, Japan’s Foreign Ministry outlined a “new foreign policy strategy,” the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Intended to “broaden the horizon of Japanese foreign policy by envisioning” two new ideas in Japan’s relationships within not only Asia, but also Africa, the strategy focuses on the ideas of “Two Continents” and “Two Oceans” as “an overarching, comprehensive concept.”
Japan’s strategy is clearly a reply to China’s far-reaching and controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which brings a mix of investment and infrastructure projects to Asia, Africa, and beyond. But Japan’s investment in its military capability is more than that, as well.
Citing an “Asia that is rapidly growing and Africa that possesses huge potential for growth,” Japan’s outward reach, and the military tools it is buying from America to back up that policy, is a Japanese commitment to keep China from dominating its immediate region.
Japan’s renewed focus on active international participation in both security and development underscores a shift in its increasing importance as a reliable democratic partner in efforts to counter what some see as global Chinese adventurism.
In 1980, during his ambassadorship to Japan, the late Senator Mike Mansfield said that, for America, the U.S.-Japan relationship was “the most important in the world, bar none.”
By 2007, the Council on Foreign Relations was describing the U.S.-China relationship as not only the most important international relationship for the United States, but the most important relationship in the 21st century.
But now that generational shift in the relative importance of Japan and China to the United States, and to many of its allies around the world, is undergoing a significant readjustment, as evidenced by Japan’s enhanced commitment to regional security.
Tellingly, not only will the F-35s dramatically increase Japan’s air force capabilities, it will also require refits of its two “carriers,” which currently are configured for helicopters.
As quoted in the South China Morning Post, “Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a visiting professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, said: ‘As Japan moves to configure the Izumo class with the ability to launch short take-off and vertical landing [STOVL] features, the F-35B is essentially the only choice.’”
The purchase of F-35s takes Japan into uncharted territory, according to some critics. As Admiral Dennis C. Blair (Ret.) writes for the U.S. Naval Institute, Japan’s new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) includes the “decision to convert two Izumo-class helicopter ‘destroyers’ into multirole aircraft carriers… Critics argue that these ships, equipped with F-35Bs, must now be considered ‘attack aircraft carriers’ and constitute a departure from Japan’s defense-oriented security policy.”
China, which never takes its eyes off of Japan’s military posture or its military cooperation with the United States, will likely analyze the situation as a departure from Japan’s post-war commitment of non-militarization except for defense.
Enshrined in Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, and drafted under General Douglas MacArthur’s direction during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, Japan “forever renounce[d] war as a sovereign right.” The country also pledged that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
No challenge to that principle nor to its constitutionality has ever sincerely been made in Japan, until the rise of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Last September, Abe reiterated a pledge he had earlier made to acknowledge the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the country’s de facto military, in the constitution. As Reuters noted, “That would be a largely symbolic change but one long sought by conservatives.”
Many foresee an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region as a likely result of Japan’s commitment to own and operate the largest fleet of American-built and designed advanced stealth fighter jets outside of the United States, and to create a true aircraft carrier capability to support that fleet.
With South Korea and Australia also on board with the F-35, China is likely to feel pressure to speed up both the deployment of its fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters, as well as to rectify the J-20’s engine problems.
And if Abe prevails and is able to even symbolically alter Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, many, including and especially China, will see that act as the beginning of a slippery slope toward eventual conflict.
As sumo wrestling teaches us, “techniques are very important… since technical expertise enables experienced sumo wrestlers to defeat opponents who are larger, stronger, or faster.”
Japan may be thinking that through.