For eight years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been looking for ways around Japan’s pacifist Constitution to bolster the country’s military. And in his last full week on the job, he laid the groundwork for a plan to allow preemptive strikes on enemy bases.
Abe’s statement on missile defense Friday leaves a big piece of unfinished business for his top aide and likely successor, Yoshihide Suga. While few expect the longtime chief Cabinet secretary to share Abe’s zeal for amending the Constitution, he’ll be confronted with the same dilemma of how to counter growing threats from China and North Korea — and the same security demands from Japan’s sole ally, the U.S.
Abe called for alternatives to defend against ballistic missiles, saying that new policies should be decided by the end of the year. He offered vague language on whether that meant strike capability, but added the plan must abide by the country’s exclusively defensive security stance. He also questioned whether interception alone would be enough.
Missiles are among Tokyo’s biggest worries as Beijing and Pyongyang rapidly expand stockpiles of advanced rockets designed to evade defense systems and destroy allied bases. Japan’s response has been muddled, with Defense Minister Taro Kono in June scrapping plans to install Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Aegis Ashore missile shield over concerns about costs and safety to the host communities.
“We are considering what policies are possible as an alternative,” Abe said, leaving the decision up to whoever wins control of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a leadership election on Monday. “And we will secure an interception capability that can protect our country from the threat of ballistic missiles.”
Suga has received support from factions representing more than half of the votes at stake, all but assuring his victory over former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The winner of the LDP race is expected to be elevated to prime minister in vote of the Diet on Wednesday.
One option is to buy weapons systems capable of striking enemy missiles before they’re launched. Problem is, that solution probably costs more money than Suga wants to spend during a global downturn. It’s also more likely to stoke fears that Japan is drifting back toward the militarism that led to World War II.
“He will probably favor a modest approach,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program in Washington. “Suga has a lot of challenges to deal with and a broad range of domestic reform priorities that will cause him to be wary of spending too much real and political capital on a military capability that can be applied only in very few situations.”
Suga will also have to contend with growing demands from Washington, whether or not President Donald Trump overcomes former Vice President Joe Biden to win a second term on Nov. 3. The U.S., which wrote the Constitution that requires its wartime foe to “forever renounce war,” has increasingly pressed Japan to play a bigger regional role to help counter China’s rise.
While Abe has purchased Lockheed F-35 fighter jets and in 2014 reinterpreted the Constitution to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of an ally under attack, he never mustered enough support to amend the document. Japan’s latest plan seeks to overcome limits on offensive weapons by arguing that striking an enemy base to prevent an attack would be a defensive move.
The most immediate concern comes from North Korea, which threatened to “sink” Japan and fired two nuclear-capable ballistic missiles over the archipelago during a flare-up in tensions in 2017. Since then, Kim Jong Un has rolled out a series of smaller solid-fuel rockets that are easier to hide, quicker to deploy and designed to evade U.S.-made interceptors like the Patriot PAC-3.
China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who both have ongoing territorial disputes with Japan, have poured money into some of the world’s most advanced missiles systems. In October, Xi paraded a variety of weapons intended to offset American advantages in any conflict through Beijing, including the DF-17 missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, which is designed to make warheads almost impossible to intercept.
“Japanese ruling party politicians are worried that the hypersonic glide vehicle, hypersonic cruise missiles or a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles in a formation flying for conventional attacks that are currently developed by China and Russia could become a game-changer for the near-future warfare,” said Katsuhisa Furukawa, a security analyst who used to serve on the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea.
Japan’s current missile-defense system relies on upper-atmosphere interception by Aegis-equipped destroyers and lower-altitude missiles being shot down by Patriots. Scrapping the ground-based Aegis Ashore system could leave a gap in the Japan’s missile shield when the destroyers aren’t in the right place.
On Friday, Abe pointed the need for a more offensive capability in his statement. “Can we really protect the lives of the people and their peaceful existence just by improving our interception capability?” he asked.
Although Japan has the rocket technology to quickly build a ballistic missile force, such a move would be costly. The switch toward offensive weapons could also face opposition at home — including from the LDP’s pacifist coalition partner Komeito — as well as from China and other countries previously occupied by Japan.
“The worst thing Japan could do would be to cut back on missile defense and increase offensive strike instead,” said Schoff, of the Carnegie Asia Program. “I don’t think Japan is set up legally or politically to make early and heavy use of strike a viable option and a useful deterrent.”
The Defense Ministry took steps toward a greater strike capability in 2017, when it allocated ¥2.2 billion ($21 million) for an air-to-surface Joint Strike Missile. The fiscal year 2020 budget allocated ¥13.6 billion more for the cruise missiles, which can be mounted on F-35s. The country is also looking to deploy the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, a longer-range version of the JSM.
To build a credible independent strike capability, Japan would also need to improve its surveillance of potential targets in China and North Korea.
“All in all, the costs could become enormous,” said Furukawa, the security analyst. “Japan does not have the fiscal resources available to cover everything on its own.”