Warship Unveiled: Changing Japan in Rare Show of Military Prestige

Yesterday, Japan unveiled its largest warship since WWII, the 250m long destroyerIzumo. Capable of carrying nine helicopters, it is at the forefront of global naval capability and yet it can only be deployed in a ‘defensive’ capacity.

Decked in the colour's of Japan's defence forces, the Izumo is a mighty specimen
Decked in the colour’s of Japan’s defence forces, the Izumo is a mighty specimen

That is because, due to Article 9 of its post-WWII constitution, Japan is forbade from developing offensive military capabilities. This was designed to prevent a repeat of the ferocious imperialism that led Japanese forces to rampage across the Pacific in a bid for regional hegemony during WWII.

Indeed, it is the aptly-titled Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) that forms the country’s sole military firepower. Despite its nominally defensive nature, the potential of the JSDF is nevertheless devastating and there are increasing calls from within Japan, and amongst Shinzo Abe’s LDP government, to think about revising the restrictive constitution.

Japan's unique peace clause
Japan’s unique peace clause

These calls are increasing primarily because of the assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy in recent months, particularly with regards to disputed islands in the East China Sea. Senkaku to Japan, Diaoyu to China, the islands are controlled by the Japanese but have been subjected to frequent sovereign incursions by Chinese maritime forces keen to show that they have not given up on possession of the territory. The fact that the islands supposedly surround a resource-rich ocean adds to the tension.

Last year, it was China that caught international headlines with the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier, the Soviet-upgraded Liaoning. Martial pomp from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is far more common than with its Japanese counterparts, yet the floating of the Liaoning was undoubtedly a major signal of Chinese intentions and power-projection capabilities.

The Liaoning is a major statement of Chinese power
The Liaoning is a major statement of Chinese power

It seems little coincidence that the unveiling of the Izumo coincided with the 68th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, which effectively sealed Japan’s fate in WWII, ending imperialist nationalism and ushering in a period of enforced pacifism.

The choice of the date to show the Izumo to the world is pertinent. It could easily be interpreted as a statement by Japan’s government that the era of restraint is over. China’s incisions into Japanese territory have convinced the LDP that the Izumo can be legitimately deployed for ‘defensive’ operations, yet some argue that it has the potential to be converted into an aircraft carrier capable of supporting far-flung offensive military ventures.

China is likely to regard the Izumo with suspicion given its subjection in the past to the worst facets of Japanese imperialism.

If ‘Abenomics’-inspired economic recovery continues, and the Japanese Prime Minister proceeds to foster the nationalism he is renowned for, we may become used to seeing more displays of Japan’s naval potential.

It will be on the day that the constitution is amended, however, and Article 9 revoked for good, that Japan’s regional neighbours will start to panic.

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Chinese Carrier Landing a Statement of Intent

It was sporadically reported in the news a few days ago that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China had managed to successfully land a military jet on the country’s first aircraft carrier, the LiaoningThis news is unlikely to have raised many eyebrows. It should have.

The difficulty of building a sea-worthy aircraft carrier is only hardened by actually landing aircraft on the completed vessel. The art is a precise and daring one. Small miscalculations could be catastrophic. One need only look at a selection of videos on Youtube for proof of this. Many analysts predicted it would take several years for the PLA to master the full use of the LiaoningThey may still be correct, however the landing of the F-15 jet was a swift step in the right direction. Questions will now inevitably be raised again about the intensions of Chinese naval power.

The acquisition of the Liaoning was a huge step for the PLA

Over the past few years, the PLA has implemented massive spending increases, particularly in terms of modernising its outdated navy. Territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, pirate attacks on precious oil shipments in busy sea lanes and the determination to counter US naval power in the Pacific are all good reasons for this rapid development. An aircraft carrier used to its full capability would certainly increase Chinese power projection at sea. Being able to refuel and launch jets and other military aircraft without recourse to dry land is a massive strategic advantage. However, has China sought to increase its power projection for defensive or offensive purposes?

Shortly after the First World War, William-Forbes Sempill, a Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force, flew to Japan to help Britain’s most important Asian ally develop an air base.  The Japanese had experienced a revival in militarism after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and its leaders were not content with being on the winning side in the First World War. Bolstered by victories against the Russians and the Chinese, in addition to the successful occupation of Korea, the Japanese were intent on a period of military modernisation equal to China today.

Having used Sempill’s help to develop a professional aeronautical infrastructure, the Japanese set about obtaining its first aircraft carriers, a vital step for an isolated island power seeking to project its imperial ambitions overseas. With concern amongst the British and Americans as to Japan’s intentions, Sempill was forbade to continue assisting his Asiatic masters. Nonetheless, the British airman persisted and played a vital role in teaching Japanese pilots the art of landing their planes on their new aircraft carriers. This treachery played a undoubtedly important part in the Japanese’s ability to attack Pearl Harbour during the Second World War and subsequently obtain several stunning naval victories in the Pacific.

An Imperial plane lands on Japan’s first aircraft carrier – Hōshō

The rapid military modernisation experienced by Japan is mirrored by the development of the PLA today. When a nation experiences unprecedented advancements in technology and weaponry, the temptation and the confidence to test them out is often overwhelming. The Japanese showed this and, aided with an imperialistically ambitious leadership, it led to devastating consequences.

China is unlikely to have the same designs on empire. However, the government and its PLA patrons have continually declared support for China’s far-reaching territorial claims. Should they fully master the benefits of the Liaoning, and continue their development of a fleet of indigenous aircraft carriers, then territorial designs in the South China Sea, for instance, could be realised. This in turn could threaten a backlash from the USA, still the predominant military power in the Pacific, with the support of its wary Korean and Japanese allies.

There is nothing wrong with China modernising its navy; it is a fundamental right of any state to be able to best defend its territory and its interests. But in defining those interests, the line between defence and offense often becomes blurred. Whereas the Chinese may not match their Japanese predecessors in terms of martial ambition, their relentless drive to military superpower status brings with it inherent dangers.