China may use Japan’s aircraft carrier plan to push through more military spending, observers say

  • Tokyo says it wants to upgrade its Izumo-class destroyers so they can carry and launch fighter jets
  • Move would be a first since nation adopted its pacifist constitution and could make regional neighbours anxious, experts say
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 6:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 6:30am

Tokyo’s plan to develop an aircraft carrier capable of launching fighter jets is driven by Beijing’s military rise, but the move could embolden hawkish generals in China to press ahead with their own expansion programmes, observers said.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito Party this week approved a new defence guideline that will effectively allow the Japanese military to convert naval vessels currently capable of carrying only helicopters into fully operational aircraft carriers able to launch fighter jets like the F-35.

The plan is controversial as under its pacifist constitution, Japan has never before owned such advanced naval hardware.

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Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said Tokyo’s plan would make an already fragile Sino-Japanese relationship even more uneasy.

“Japan has so far refused to recognise its aggression against China during the second world war,” he said. “Any move to build its first aircraft carrier would not only violate its pacifist constitution – which forbids it from operating such an attack vessel – but would also make China and other countries that were victims of its aggression very uneasy.”

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The plan was “obviously targeting China”, Song said as Beijing had accelerated its own naval build up with the addition of advanced destroyers and aircraft carriers.

Beijing has made significant advances in its naval firepower in recent years. It already has one aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – in active service, and a second – the domestically developed Type 001A – is set to join it next year. By 2030, at least four aircraft carrier battle groups are expected to be in service.

Despite Tokyo’s plans to have a carrier capable of hosting fighter jets, Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said it was premature to assume Japan’s Izumo-class vessels would be a match for China’s much larger ships.

“It will be a costly job to convert an Izumo-class destroyer into a real aircraft carrier. It will take a lot of time and involve a lot of sophisticated technologies,” he said.

“And even if the project can be done, how can a 27,000-tonne warship deal with China’s Type 001 Liaoning aircraft carrier, which is several times bigger?”

Collin Koh Swee Lean, a defence expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Tokyo’s plan might provoke a backlash not only from China but also the two Koreas, and intensify naval competition in northeast Asia.

“That could lead to countries boosting their countervailing capabilities through defence build-ups, and even enhancing defence and security engagements with powers from outside the region,” he said.

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Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said, however, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was using the naval defence plan to bolster his approval ratings.

“It is not a good idea to upgrade or refit a giant warship, based on China’s costly experience of modifying the Liaoning,” he said.

But Abe wanted to “test the temperature of the trouble waters” as China and the US remained embroiled in a power struggle over geopolitics and trade, he said.

The Liberal Democratic Party does at least appear aware of the concerns of its neighbours. After initially proposing the introduction of a “multi-purpose defensive aircraft carrier”, it later reworded the guideline to say the Izumo would be upgraded as “multi-purpose destroyer”.