Japan plans major defence spending while navigating its pacifist constitution

Japan plans its first aircraft carrier and big increases in defence spending and weapons capability in the coming years, according to new defence guidelines approved Tuesday that cite its need to counter potential threats from North Korea and China and other vulnerabilities.

Purchases would include 1st aircraft carrier since Second World War, dozens of stealth fighters

A helicopter of Japan Self-Defence Forces prepares to land on the flight deck of the helicopter destroyer Izumo of Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force, in December 2016. Japan has adopted new defence guidelines, calling for converting a destroyer into its first aircraft carrier in decades to deploy advanced U.S.-made stealth fighters. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

Japan is planning its first aircraft carrier and big increases in defence spending and weapons capability in the coming years, according to new defence guidelines approved Tuesday that cite its need to counter potential threats from North Korea and China and other vulnerabilities.

The guidelines approved at a meeting of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet call for refitting an existing helicopter carrier into a ship that can deploy expensive, U.S.-made F-35B stealth fighters capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings. Japan plans to buy 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs, over the next decade.

The guidelines would replace the current defence plan halfway through its intended lifespan and underscore Abe's push to expand Japan's military role and capability to make it, as he puts it, "a normal country." He has long wanted to revise Japan's U.S.-drafted constitution that renounces war and has already broadened the concept of self-defence to allow Japanese personnel to defend allied military forces as Japan increasingly works alongside American troops.

Defence officials say Japan needs higher deterrence and increased missile defence and fighter capability as North Korea's missile and nuclear threats remains unchanged in the absence of concrete steps to dismantle them, and China's maritime activity has grown increasingly assertive. The new guidelines say Japan needs to be well-prepared and to show it can withstand threats, noting the archipelago is prone to natural disasters and its coastline is dotted with vulnerable nuclear power plants.

Officials say the Maritime Self-Defence Force's helicopter carrier Izumo, a 250-metre-long, flat-top destroyer that can carry 14 helicopters, is set to be refitted as an aircraft carrier. Japan has relatively little land on which to build runways long enough for conventional F-35s, and an aircraft carrier would be particularly useful in the western Pacific, where Japan tries to defend remote islands, including those disputed with China, and to play a greater role as part of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed interest in amending the country's constitution in order to allow Japan more control over defending its territory. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

A cost estimate for the refitted carrier wasn't given. The work would be done over five years and the ship would carry 10 stealth fighters. The refitting of a second helicopter carrier would follow.

The step is a major shift to Japan's postwar naval defence, which has lacked aircraft carriers in part out of concerns that they may remind Japan's Asian neighbours of aggression by Japan's wartime Navy.

Japan playing up China threat, Beijing says

Critics say possession of an aircraft carrier would give Japan a strike capability in violation of its pacifist constitution that limits use of force to self-defence only. Japan, under the new defence guidelines, also plans to possess cruise missiles designed to hit enemy targets, which opponents say could violate Japan's pacifist principle.

China urged Japan to stick to a defence-only policy and peaceful development.

"Due to historical reasons, neighbouring countries in Asia and the international community have long been highly concerned about Japan's moves in military and security fields," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

J​​apan was making "groundless and irresponsible accusations against China's normal defence construction and military activities" to play up the China threat, she said.

Defence officials brushed off the criticism, saying Izumo will be a multifunctional warship used as an aircraft carrier only when necessary for national defence.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the plan is mainly for fighter pilots in case of an emergency at sea and that it "falls within the minimum necessity allowed under the constitution." He said the revised guidelines presented what Japan truly needs to protect its people and portrayed what Japan's future defence should be.

The guidelines say Japan needs to beef up its air defence capability in the Pacific, while expanding surveillance in the area. The Defence Ministry says Japan plans to purchase 105 conventional F-35s and 42 F-35Bs to replace some of its fleet of F-15s.

The big cost for the jets — a F-35B costs about 10 billion yen ($119 million Cdn) — will drive up Japan's defence spending, which has already climbed steadily for six straight years since Abe took office at the end of 2012. Japan plans to spend 235 billion yen ($2.8 billion) to buy a pair of land-fixed U.S. missile defence systems, Aegis Ashore, as well as other American missile interceptors.

The cabinet, under the guidelines, also approved a new Medium Term Defence Program requiring a record five-year defence spending of 27 trillion yen ($322 billion) beginning in 2019, up more than 2 trillion yen ($23.8 billion) from an earlier five-year defence budget.

As Japan comes under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to allow more exports from the U.S., purchases of costly American weapons would be a way to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, while enhancing military co-operation between the allies. Japan's U.S. arms purchases have surged, and the Defence Ministry came under criticism by the government's Board of Audit for agreeing too easily to Washington's hefty asking price. The guidelines said Japan will seek more cost-efficient purchase of advance-capability U.S. equipment, while pushing for more joint research and development.

Buying more American weapons, however, would be a setback for Japan's fledgling defence industry and its hopes to develop its own replacement of F-2 fighter jets are uncertain. The guidelines did not mention whether the F-2 successor would be made in Japan or jointly developed.

The guidelines also called for setting up a unit specializing in space, cyberattacks and electronic warfare, while integrating the ground maritime and air forces to better co-ordinate operations. Japan should aim for a unified, simultaneous "multi-dimensional and unified defence capability" that breaks away from the conventional concept of ground, maritime and air defence, the guidelines said.

As the fast-aging country faces a declining population and workforce, Japan will accept more women to join the self-defence force, postpone retirement age, and promote research and development of robotics and unmanned equipment, the guidelines said.