Japan’s minister of defense, Itsunori Onodera, was in New Delhi last week for high-level talks with his Indian counterpart, A K Antony. Among other regional security topics, including the unilateral ADIZ declaration by China, the two ministers agreed to mount a joint naval exercise off Japan later this year. That would be a first.
The first India-Japan naval exercise off of India’s coast took place in December, however. At the same time, the two nations’ coast guards announced they would conduct a joint exercise in January (starting tomorrow, 14 January, in fact), also off India’s coast.
(Some readers may have seen the report today that Japan is requesting to participate in the next annual MALABAR exercise with the U.S., India, and other South Asian navies in the Bay of Bengal. This isn’t the big deal the Indian media are making it out to be; Japan has participated in MALABAR since 2010. India and the U.S. sponsor it jointly, and participation is by invitation, which has to be renewed for each iteration of the exercise. Australia and Singapore are the other regular participants.)
Minister Onodera was back in Japan on Sunday to observe a military exercise conducted east of Tokyo, in which Japanese forces demonstrated countering the invasion of an island.
Japan is accelerating her build-up of an amphibious force, which would be capable of assault as well as defense, in case of the need to retake an island. Amphibious assault vehicles and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft figure large in Tokyo’s latest five-year defense plan. As noted in the Naval Institute article, the Japanese marines train with the U.S. Marine Corps, and have done so since 2006. The next Exercise Iron Fist, at Camp Pendleton in southern California, will start on 23 January.
Tokyo is also checking blocks that may seem administrative, but that underpin Japan’s maritime claims, forming the boundaries she proposes to assert and defend. The U.S. has comparatively few “offshore” islands, while Japan has hundreds lying off her main island territories. Last week, the Japanese government announced that it would be identifying all the islands, and determining official ownership – or lack thereof – for a list of 280 of them. (Some of the other outlying islands do fall under state-acknowledged private ownership.) Japan will “nationalize” all the islands for which ownership is not established by June 2014.
Why this was not done before is the same reason Japan hasn’t done a lot of things before: because in the context of the U.S. alliance and U.S. power, it wasn’t seen as necessary for security, whereas it would be seen as alarming by the other nations of East Asia.
Japan has to be edging past that concern, at this point. The drumbeat of aggression from China is too insistent now, and the profile of U.S. power too unreliable. That said, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threw some fuel on the fire with a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December, the shrine to Japan’s war dead from World War II where some convicted war criminals are commemorated.
I don’t in any way foresee a resurgence of “bushido imperialism” from Japan today. Japan is a responsible great power, a linchpin of stability in her region, and it would be increasingly unnatural for her to not take all the security precautions that are ordinary among independent nations. Still, we live in interesting times.