UNDER Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is set to reclaim its past glory as a sea power. Since taking over the premiership in 2006, he has modernised the navy (Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force) and transformed the maritime industries.
To understand Japan’s sea power concept, one needs to take cognisance of tangible assets, as well as non-tangible assets like skill, education, science, culture and leadership. Variables like geopolitics and geography, too, influence Japan’s quest for sea power.
Although it is a fraction of its Imperial Navy, the JMSDF is second to none in the Asia-Pacific region. It is better equipped than the combined navies of Asean. In terms of firepower (minus nuclear weapons), the JMSDF is on par with the Royal Navy of Britain.
By most estimates, it can punch above its weight and can probably match the Chinese PLA Navy in a limited conflict scenario at sea, for example, in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu region.
Besides a strong navy and a formidable maritime industry, Japan also has the best equipped coast guard in the region. Although lightly armed, it is comparable in size to any navy in the developing world.
The coast guard operates some 455 vessels and 74 aircraft (27 fixed wing and 46 helicopters). In 2001, the coast guard sank a North Korean spy ship!
Historically, Japan depended on the sea for its political, security and economic survival. The height of its political supremacy in the 19th century coincided with the rise of its Imperial Navy.
By the start of World War One, Japan was recognised as a major sea power. Impressed by the American sea power, following the visit of Commodore Perry in 1853, the Japanese went to build a navy that defeated China (1894-1895) and Russia (1904-1905).
It is no coincidence that Japan’s decline as a military power coincided with the defeat of its Imperial Navy.
The destruction of Japanese sea power in World War Two and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945) led to its defeat and American occupation of Japan.
Besides modernising the JSDF, Abe has taken personal interest in reversing the decline of its maritime industry. While Japan has a strong shipbuilding industry, it has ceded some economic advantage to South Korea and China.
By 2015, three years into Abe’s second term, the performance of the maritime industry picked up. The global share of the Japanese shipbuilding industry was 29 per cent, overtaking China (28 per cent) but still behind South Korea (34 per cent) in 2015.
In the same year, the Japanese shipbuilding industry employed more than 125,000 people, accounting for US$27 billion (RM105.57 billion) of sales and 90 per cent of domestic production, including ship machinery.
The capacity of Japan to develop marine-related industries to support commercial, as well as military needs, is an important sea power attribute.
To save foreign exchange, Japan relies on its shipping lines to carry goods for exports and imports.
The Japanese merchant fleet comprises more than 2,500 vessels, which carried more than 190 million dwt in gross tonnage or it carried about two per cent of the global sea-borne trade (2014).
Recent changes in global geo-politics — a rising China, declining American influence, North Korean nuclear threat, US President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement and the green light to go nuclear — have provided perfect pretexts for Abe’s quest for a stronger Japan. However, the consequences are far more difficult to predict.