Japanese conservatives were expecting Abe to deliver his promises of a more diplomatically assertive and militarily “normal nation”. He did.
Abe scored points with his tough handling of the North Korean nuclear test crisis, winning the crucial area elections that were seen as the first test of his administration. Through its missile and nuclear tests, North Korea has made it many times easier for Abe to gain public support for his tough stance on the Stalinist state, including participation in the UN-mandated naval inspections of North Korean ships plying in and out of the country.
As a major show of unprecedented postwar military power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the Japanese Navy’s annual fleet review which involved more than 8,100 troops and 48 ships. It was an impressive display of the world’s third most powerful navy, with the state-of-the-art Aegis destroyers, stealth submarines and high-speed hovercraft. 'I believe this is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our readiness,' said Mr Abe, in an address to the sailors aboard the flagship Kurama. He also castigated Pyongyang for its 'grave and unforgivable' act in conducting its nuclear test.
If a naval conflict had broken out, it would have left no doubt that the Japan Navy would pulverize the North Korean fleet. Three factors of differentiation separate the capabilities of the North Korean and Japanese Navies. First, the North Korean navy is a coastal fleet unlike the Japanese naval force which has global capabilities with proven records in Iraqi and Afghanistan peacekeeping and refueling missions. North Korea in contrast has no blue water destroyers and only one frigate. Naval power projection is out of the question here.
Secondly, there is a major gap in technological capabilities. The 40 guided missile boats in the North Korean Navy are armed with the obsolete Styx anti-ship missile (vintage 1955) which faces the world’s most powerful guided missile Aegis fleet in Japan. The North Korean submarine fleet consists of the 1950s vintage Romeo submarines (19 of them) and Whiskey (a grand total of four). Romeo and Whiskey subs resemble WWII German U-boats more than they do modern submarines and are based on Nazi Germany’s Type XXI U-boat technologies.
Third, North Korea’s coast is defended by Chinese silkworm missiles (vintage 1955), technology phased out by the Chinese themselves in the 1980s and replaced with the more sophisticated equipment in the Yingji series. North Korea has to depend on the Silkworms’ heavy warhead load and large numbers for scoring a possible hit instead of accuracy and advanced guidance systems. On the other hand, Japan, already armed with the world’s most sophisticated missile systems like the PAC-3, is now testing the ASM-3, a stealthy twin-ramjet-powered long-range (100+ km) air-launched anti-ship missile (ASM).
Outside the North Korean crisis issue, the question top in the minds of Japan’s neighbours, particularly China and South Korea is how far Japan will push the boundaries in order to become a ‘normal’ state or have a full-fledged military. The issue with greater repercussions for the region is whether Japan will go nuclear.
Shoichi Nakagawa, policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, has added fuel to the debate started by other LDP heavyweights such as Foreign Minister Taro Aso who raised the issue of a nuclear debate but retracted it in Washington. Prime Minster Abe himself has also strategically ruled out this option. "As a form of deterrence, one can argue nuclear an option. We must discuss all options to ensure that Japan would not come under nuclear attacks," Nakagawa said.
The strongest lid on Japan’s nuclear option for the moment is Washington. In exchange for dampening Japan’s own nuclear desire, the US has a proposal to deploy Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) interceptor missiles around Yokota Air Base in Tokyo's western suburbs and around Yokosuka Naval Base, south of the capital in an effort to convince the Japanese that the US missile shield is far more effective as a deterrence than a nuclear Japan. The US already has the PAC-3 in place in Okinawa.
US mulls missile defences for Tokyo area (Straits Times, 30 Oct 2006)
Korean People’s Army Navy (Globalsecurity.com, accessed on 30 Oct 2006)
Japanese lawmaker renews calls for nuclear debate (Channelnewsasia, 29 Oct 2006)
Japan tests ramjet-powered anti-ship missile (Jane’s, 26 Oct 2006)