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Examining Abe diplomacy (Part 4): “Speak softly and carry a big stick” is Abe’s approach to China over security

Upgrading of MSDF destroyer Izumo into an aircraft carrier


While improving Japan’s overall relationship with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking a tough stance with that nation regarding security. He seems to be practicing the tactic of “speaking softly and carrying a big stick (military power),” a diplomatic technique Japan has traditionally not been skilled at using.


The Defense Ministry earmarked money in next fiscal year’s budgetary request to start the procurement of F-35Bs and the reinforcement of the deck of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer “Izumo” with heat-resistance coating so that it can handle the new aircraft. F-35Bs are state-of-the art stealth fighters with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.


China is building multiple aircraft carriers and increasing its maritime activities in the western Pacific. In light of this, the Japanese government is expediting the upgrading of Izumo into an aircraft carrier.


Izumo participated in two joint exercises in quick succession with U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier “Ronald Reagan” on June 10-12 and June 19-20 in the South China Sea. Claiming that the South China Sea is “China’s sea,” the Chinese government is unilaterally building a military base there. The potential that a military conflict could break out between the U.S. and China has hence become a concern.


The fact that Izumo, which will soon be upgraded to an aircraft carrier, and a U.S. aircraft carrier navigated the South China Sea together probably gave China the impression that the two countries are brandishing a “big stick” in China’s backyard.


At the end of last year when the upgrading of Izumo was announced, the Chinese media opposed the plan and warned Japan, saying, “[The upgrading is] an attack plan” and “an aggressive act in which Japan is stepping outside its strictly defensive policy.” The Japanese government, however, went forward with participating in the exercises.




In the area of technological dominance in the next generation communication standard known as 5G, the Japanese government, in step with the U.S., essentially eliminated products manufactured by Chinese communications giants Huawei and ZTE from its government procurement. 


During the June G20 summit in Osaka, Prime Minister Abe announced the “Osaka Track,” a framework for making international rules for the free movement of data across borders. The hidden motive behind the “Osaka Track” is to counter China. “By monopolizing data, a country can gain an overwhelming advantage, but this will not lead to happiness for the world’s people,” said the prime minister in an online program prior to the G20 summit. The Prime Minister was obviously referring to China here since it is trying to be dominant in the analysis of big data.


European countries are hesitant to eliminate the Huawei and other products because they value economic relations with China. Compared with those European countries, Japan stands out for the way it has actively taken measures against China.


China’s countermeasures


Some experts point out that China may increase its military exercises in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, and waters around Japan in response to Japan’s deployment of the Self-Defense Forces to the South China Sea. On July 23, the Chinese military conducted joint flight exercises with Russia for the first time in the airspace from the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea. China’s strategic bomber H-6K participated in the exercises, and Russia’s airborne early-warning control aircraft violated the airspace around Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture.


At a press conference on Aug. 29, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Ren Guoqiang, referring to the purpose of the joint exercises, said, “The Chinese and Russian militaries enhanced their joint response capability against powers that threaten security.”


Both Japan and China, however, seem to agree that the saber-rattling will not affect the Japan-China relationship, which has been improving.


This is because both Japan and China intend to expand bilateral economic relations. Referring to one of the reasons for China to continue improving ties with Prime Minister Abe even though the Prime Minister is increasingly keeping China in check, a source connected with the Japanese government said, “China probably thinks it has no choice but to get along with the Prime Minister because he does not compromise even if China applies pressure and he has a stable administration.”

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