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16/12/2019
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Japan’s Self-Defence Forces are beginning to focus on China

Prompted by President Trump to do more for their own defense, but the pace of change is slow and the legal obstacles daunting

The Izumu in port - Now being converted into an Aircraft CarrierThe Izumu in port - Now being converted into an Aircraft Carrier Yokosuka, Apr.17.– On a cold spring day, rowds of Japanese gather to peer at the hulking grey ship moored in the port of Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo. The Izumo, the country’s largest warship, has attracted attention at home and abroad since December, when Japan’s government announced that it would upgrade her. Her deck, and that of her sister ship, the Kaga, will be reinforced to accommodate up to a dozen of the 147 F-35 fighter jets Japan recently ordered from America.

The refitting of the Izumo is one sign of Japan’s shifting defence posture. The changes are small, by necessity. Japan is constrained by its constitution, written by occupying American forces after the second world war. It bars Japan from maintaining armed forces or settling disputes by war. Despite these strictures, Japan has long had an army in all but name: the “Self-Defence Forces”. The SDF has focused, aptly enough, on defence—hunting submarines and warding off warplanes, for example—while relying on American troops based in Japan to go on the offensive, should that be required. Little by little, however, that formula is changing.

Since Shinzo Abe began his second stint as prime minister in 2012, he has pushed to make the SDF more of a normal army, as part of a broader nationalist agenda. He has passed laws to allow Japan to come to the aid of allies and to permit the SDF to use its weapons in a wider range of circumstances while on UN peacekeeping missions. This month, for the first time, Japan even contributed two soldiers to an American-led peacekeeping mission, rather than a UN one, in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

In 2013 Mr Abe also established a National Security Council (NSC), staffed by 70-odd officials, to debate and co-ordinate defence and security policy. The NSC, which puts out guidelines every five years, issued its latest in December ...

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