A third of the Royal Canadian Navy’s entire Pacific frigate fleet is visiting Japan. Mind you, that’s just two vessels.
By contrast, Japan’s navy is vastly larger and its government is embarking on its largest military spending spree since the Second World War.
Japan has recently announced a $433-billion upgrade plan to turn its armed forces into a major regional force, buying missiles capable of hitting China and Chinese ships and ensuring Japan will become the world’s third-largest spender on defence (after the U.S. and China).
That 65 per cent increase in spending will mean Japan hits the mark of directing two per cent of GDP to defence no later than 2027.
But behind both moves — Canada sending ships to the region and Japan’s military investment — is a pushback against China’s influence, now with approximately 355 ships and submarines in its navy, making it the world’s largest by size.
“Japan is really trying to make sure that it has enough capability to defend itself,” said Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan program at the Stimson Center, a foreign affairs think-tank in Washington.
That is primarily about ensuring Japan is capable of responding to Chinese threats against its outlying islands and territorial waters — as well as the possibility of a wider confrontation involving Taiwan.
There is also the enduring challenge from the nuclear-armed North Korean regime, which has been firing ballistic missiles toward Japan’s territorial waters.
How an invasion of Taiwan could hit Japan
Were China to move militarily against Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States would intervene.
The closest American forces, including dozens of U.S. navy ships, are at sprawling U.S. military bases in Japan.
If China wanted to stop them, analysts say it may strike Japan.
“Any contingency across Taiwan Strait,” said Tatsumi, “will quickly escalate into a situation where Japan’s own national security is threatened.”
There are also historical tensions and territorial disputes between Japan and China that have, at times, involved their militaries.
But China is now in a much stronger position, said Ken Jimbo, a professor in the faculty of policy management at Tokyo’s Keio University.
“In 2005, the Japanese defence budget and the Chinese defence budget were almost equal … now China spends four or five times what we do. This is a huge change.”
Japan’s navy, at 150 vessels, is less than half China’s size — but the expected purchase of 1,500 long-range missiles from the United States would give it the capability of sinking Chinese ships as far away as Taiwan.
“We need to send the strategic message to China that the price they’d pay would be high,” said Jimbo.
Japan is also working with European countries on developing new fighter jets, building long-range drones and expanding the size of its armed forces in its largest military buildup since the Second World War.
Other countries — including Canada — have stepped up their naval presence in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. In diplomatic language, these are called freedom of navigation patrols — in other words, exercises intended to send a message to China that other countries are invested in the region and intend to maintain operations in China’s backyard.
HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Vancouver, frigates with the Royal Canadian Navy, are both in the Indo-Pacific region for an extended deployment, as Canada shifts it warships to the region more frequently in response to China’s growing influence.
“Canada is significantly increasing its military presence in the region to support a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific where international rules prevail,” Defence Minister Bill Blair said at the time of the ships’ departure from Canada last month.
Major shift for a pacifist country
In announcing the major investment, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the country as being at a “turning point in history.”
When the Second World War ended, the defeated Japanese were forced by the Allies to disband their military. American occupation forces then imposed a new constitution on Japan in 1947, one which makes pacifism a central pillar.
Article 9 of the document “prohibited Japan from sending troops into war,” said Jimbo, and denied it the equipment and means to do so.
Even when a military was re-established in the 1950s, it was named the Self-Defence Forces, focusing solely on defending the homeland.
While the name remains, the purpose of the military has evolved.
Japan is shifting from a defensive posture in the type of weapons it buys and the training it does to a more offensive posture with far greater defensive arms at its disposal.
“There are still the older generation who experienced the [Second World] war and immediate aftermath and they have a strong allergy towards the military. They are typically pacifists,” said Jimbo.
“But following generations are looking at the risks that might happen in northeast Asia.”
Shifting balance of power
This all changed, Tatsumi said, “in the last five years, and especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
It demonstrated to the world that a foreign state could still invade and attempt to seize a neighbour. For Japan, academics point to recent Chinese incursions in their waters, particularly around the uninhabited Senkaku Islands that Japan and China claim as their own.
“After the [Ukraine] invasion happened,” said Jimbo, “the Japanese people shifted their thinking.”
Polls in the country suggest 70 per cent of adults now back greater investment in the military, as the balance of power shifts in the region.
“If China came here, who is going to stop them?” Uyutaka Maki, a 38-year-old professional, asked in Tokyo. “We have to be able to defend ourselves.
But 71-year-old Hiroyuki Furenne sees it differently.
His grandfather was killed in the Hiroshima bombing in 1945 that preceded the end of the Second World War, and many in his family lived with the nuclear aftermath.
“By spending more money, I fear it means we are going to be engaging in war. We should focus instead on good diplomacy.”
The door isn’t closed to that, but advocates of the increased funding argue Japan will be in a better negotiating and deterrence position with a stronger military as backup.
At the end of the Second World War, Japan relied on the United States for its security needs. To this day, American bases, soldiers and ships based in Japan provide both an extension of American power and a security guarantee for Japan.
“We were able to rely on that posture by the U.S.-Japan security treaty,” said Jimbo.
But with China more assertive in its actions, and a much larger navy, Japan is seeking to rely less on the Americans and more on themselves. To do that, they’re embarking on an enormous change to the military capabilities.
It’s “a significant change,” said Tatsumi, “considering what Japan has been doing historically.”