Politics of symbolism has had the historic capacity to divide Beijing and Tokyo, more than any tangible incident as such. Symbolic visits by eminent Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine and war museum in central Tokyo, annoys China no end.
It is a shrine that is widely perceived to be celebrating Japan’s controversial militarism in a revisionist, hyper-nationalistic and unapologetic manner, given the brunt faced by people in occupied places like China and the Korean peninsula.
Similarly, portents of modern-day expansionism by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), especially given Beijing’s deliberately escalated rhetoric on Taiwan and territorial claims on Senkaku Islands, elicits the same disapproving reaction in Japan.
Conflation and coalescing of Chinese and Russian interests on global affairs e.g., Ukraine war, has afforded similar concerns of Russian belligerence and possible assertion as far as Japanese perceptions are concerned.
In the midst of increasingly imagined threat perceptions, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shared his “strong sense of crisis regarding the security environment in East Asia” and announced Japan’s unprecedented intent to double defense spending over the next five years.
The self-imposed Japanese restraint in the conduct of their foreign and defense policy has been put to rest, as it went about signing the Global Combat Air Program with the United Kingdom and Italy to develop sixthgeneration fighter aircraft.
This ties in with the recently released National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy and Defense Buildup Program that sets out Japan’s defense expenditure over the next decade and its intention to acquire counter strike capabilities.
Without mincing words, Japan’s NSS refers to China as its ‘greatest strategic challenge’. Shaping and weaponising the conceptualisation of the Quad (Quadrilateral understanding of Japan, US, India and Australia), is therefore only par for course. Alluding to the multidimensional risks from China specifically, Mr Kishida invoked the need to rely on, “allies and like-minded countries”, which obviously includes the United States but also the other major power in the IndoPacific realm, that is India. Having shed its traditionally subdued geopolitical voice and pacifism, Japan unveiled a mammoth $320 billion buildup plan that would make the country the third biggest military spender after the US and China. While Japan will work with the US on critical technologies, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, the US has agreed to station a specialised unit of the US marines with advanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities.
China’s unofficial mouthpiece i.e., Global Times, noted in its editorial, “Japan is no longer willing to act just as a ‘solid shield’ but now wants to play the role of a ‘spear’, and the US has given strong support for this.”
But it is the Chinese accusation against Japan of leading the larger task of building a ‘bloc’ against China that is interesting, as in another editorial it noted Japan’s signing of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with UK as leading to, “similar moves of defense cooperation from the other US allies, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region”. Without explicitly being named, India is the unmentioned elephant in the room.
With this heated backdrop, the dramatic landing of four Indian Air Forces SU-30 MKI fighter jets, two C-17 transport planes, one IL-78 tanker and 150 combatants towards air combat training exercise “Veer Guardian 2023” with Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), assumes deep significance and symbolism.
Strategic posturing and optics aside, the JASDF would get hands-on training to engage with a Russian origin fighter plane ~ something it routinely scrambles against in terms of Russian Air Force’s intrusions, or indeed, Chinese fighter planes like J-16 based on Russia’s SU-30.
Part of the first and landmark ‘2+2’ Foreign and Defense Ministerial agreement signed in 2019 (delayed owing to the Covid pandemic), this is a stepped-up move to assert muscularity against the Chinese threat.
Japanese Chief of Staff of the JASDF, Izutsu Shunji, put it plainly, “Japan and India are in a special strategic global partnership relationship” and that, “holding the exercises represents the JASDF and the IAF have established a mature relationship already”.
When viewed alongside enhanced US support towards Japan’s military wherewithal, the signing of Japan’s RAA with UK (earlier signed with Australia) which allows both countries to deploy forces on each other’s soil, the visible presence of Indian fighter planes in Japan is loaded with portents of immense concern as far as Beijing is concerned.
Unlike the infamous defection of Soviet Air Defense Forces’ Lieutenant Viktor Belenko with his MIG-25 ‘Foxbat’ to Hakodate airport in Hokkaido Prefecture in Japan, on 6 September 1976, which had exposed Japan’s air defense system with its inability to track and intercept the incoming Soviet jet ~ the Indian Air Force’s SU-30 offers a far better challenge of the battle of ‘best dogfighters’ with it going up against JASDF’s F-15’s.
Japan has had to deal with the triumvirate of threats from China, North Korea and even the Russians, who conducted intimidating military drills in the Sea of Okhotsk with elements from Russia’s Pacific Fleet participating in the same.
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific region has become a theatre of shadowboxing and sabre-rattling with Japan and India facing the maximum brunt of Chinese belligerence, along with Taiwan.
This geopolitical churn has accelerated the process of a counter ‘bloc’ fronted by the US, and increasingly flanked by Japan, India, Australia, and the Nato powers.
Tellingly the US and Japan issued a joint statement in Washington DC on the future of Quad that barely hid its intentions, urgencies and planned ‘bite’ as it roped in the two other participants.
“Together with Australia and India, we will ensure the Quad continues to be a force for good, committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region, including by delivering results on global health, cybersecurity, climate, critical and emerging technologies, and maritime domain awareness”, the statement said.
The signaling to Beijing was unmistakable. As the ‘Free World’ flexes its own counter muscle by pooling its own resources, the stage has truly gone beyond conceptualizing and ideation, as strategic agreements, military exercises and weaponry hardware of like-minded countries wary of the Sinosphere is already on each other’s land and taking aggressive postures.