JAPAN’S latest white paper on defence pulls few punches. “Destabilising factors” in the region are “becoming more tangible and acute”, it warns. North Korea may already have miniaturised nuclear weapons and fashioned them into nuclear warheads. China’s creeping attempts to “change the status quo” by militarising the South China Sea show it intends to “fulfil its unilateral demands without compromise”. On top of all these worries are Japan’s long-standing territorial disputes with its closest neighbours: Russia, South Korea and China.
Japan seems more than equal to these threats. The Self-Defence Forces (SDF), despite the innocuous name, is one of the world’s most powerful armies, with the eighth-largest budget, a larger navy than France and Britain combined, over 1,600 aircraft and four flat-top carriers. Its 300,000 troops are superbly equipped. In addition, Japan has what is assumed to be a sophisticated system to defend against incoming missiles, should it come to war with North Korea. But some say this is not enough. Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister, is among those hawks urging the purchase of pre-emptive military capabilities, such as cruise missiles that could destroy enemy missiles before they were launched. That would mark a radical break with Japan’s pacifist constitution, which bans acts of belligerence—and even the maintenance of land, sea or air forces (notwithstanding the existence of the SDF). Shigeru Ishiba, a leading member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said this month that Japan should maintain the capability to build its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent.