Caught between a pacifist constitution and a rapidly ageing demographic, Japan’s efforts to build military deterrence against China don’t bode well for its future.

Japan’s cabinet has approved a record defence budget plan totalling $51.6 billion for 2020. The significant defence budget follows nine successive increases in annual defence spending amid threats posed by a belligerent China and North Korea.

A significant amount of the budget will fund two new Aegis-equipped destroyers, bringing their total count to 10, the largest in the world after the United States Navy. 

Aegis, which means shield, is the world’s foremost surface combat system, designed and developed to be able to engage in simultaneous warfare on several fronts — air, surface, subsurface, and conventional strike warfare. 

Close, but not close enough

Japan’s current navy features 155 ships in total, including 4 aircraft carriers, 40 destroyers, and 20 submarines, the result of decades of quiet rearmament. But even that may not be enough to contend with growing Chinese might in its neighbourhood. In 2019, China’s defence budget stood at $178 billion and continues to exhibit consistent growth. For regional experts, the military build-up could lead to a flare-up of conflict over mutually contested waters and islands.

Japanese naval ships are larger on average than their Chinese, which is a significant factor determining survivability and effectiveness at sea. However, the Chinese navy outstrips Japans’ in terms of sheer missiles and launchers it can bring to bear in any given firefight. 

This is part of a concerted Chinese strategy that prizes layered defence, effectively deterring its enemies from fighting it due to the high losses they can be expected to incur. With this asymmetrical twist, the Chinese naval calculus dictates that destroying a $13 billion aircraft carrier with a volley of $20 million in missiles was a worthy investment.

As such, China recently deployed a ‘Carrier Killer’ intermediate nuclear-capable missile, the Dong Feng-26, which translates to ‘East Wind’. Difficult to shoot down, the ballistic missile is able to adjust position mid-flight, and has the potential to cripple or destroy an aircraft carrier from up to 4,500 km away.

Between a rock and a hard place

With a significantly smaller budget, and widespread civic resistance to rearmament, Japanese defence planners and policymakers continue to walk a tenuous line between Chinese rapprochement and deterrence; opting for diplomacy, but preparing for war.  More critically, the budget must still be adopted by parliament before coming into effect.

Seeking to offset Chinese firepower, Japan is also set to develop a new, longer-range surface-to-ship missile, after its naval ships have come into close proximity in the East China Sea islands claimed by both nations. The missiles, estimated to require $322 million for development, have been criticized as a possible violation of Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Article 9 of Japan’s constitution bans war as a means of resolving international disputes and forbids maintaining a standing military. As such, Japan maintains ‘Self-Defence Forces’. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to amend the Article, but failed to garner the requisite two-thirds majority in the Upper House which blocked his attempt to call a referendum. 

Given its constitutional limitations, Japan has traditionally relied heavily on the United States for nuclear deterrence, but given China’s sub-threshold operations in the East China Sea, US involvement is rarely triggered. 

The country's budget will also dedicate funds to developing a next-generation fighter jet, to complement its purchased F-35 stealth fighters.

Japan’s renewed interest in expanding its navy comes after it scrapped plans to build an Aegis land-based missile defense system in a proactive response to North Korea, which revealed an arsenal of rapid-strike ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to Japan, its self-declared enemy. 

In 2017, North Korea fired missiles over Japan, but China continues to be its primary security threat. 

Hazardous waters

Still, security experts question if the most recent steps taken by Japan are enough, amid the steady expansion of China's defence budget and its investment into critical technologies such as hypersonic glide missiles that travel many times faster than the speed of sound.

Japan and China both claim sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a tiny archipelago near Taiwan and the Ryukyus. 

China encroachment continues to solidify control of offshore air and sea traffic. Most recently, it announced it’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), in an effective step towards rewriting international law on shared nautical commons. 

Domestically, Japan faces bleak prospects of manning a sustainable and capable military force, as it’s large ageing population means it consistently falls short of military recruitment quotas. This leaves Japan with the difficult choice of either lowering aptitude standards for recruitment or making do with an undermanned defence force. 

Japan’s total population shrank by a record 500,000 compared to the previous year. This marks the biggest population drop since 1968, and is only estimated to worsen in the coming years.