Japan is now the fourth country after US, Russia and China to unveil a successful prototype of what it claims to be a stealth fighter. It is an iconic moment, as Japan’s X-2 stealth fighter prototype is the country’s competition to the American F-35 Lightning II, Russia’s T-50, and China’s J-20. The X-2 is named “Shinshin” which translates to “Spirit of the Heart,” has been in development for over a decade costing Japan a whopper $294 million (2.3 billion yen). Japan is also planning its first test flight in February.
Now, the plane hasn’t flown yet so there’s no flight data or record, or performance, and analysts are already raising doubts about it. The structural aerodynamics look dodgy, and it was showcased without any weapon system. Anyone familiar with this field will now, that the whole dynamics changes when weapons systems are introduced in a flying platform, and no one is sure how the planes will behave once that happens. Similarly, analysts are not even sure this plane might even be weaponised or used for other purposes like surveillance. Suffice to say there is a long way to go for Japan when it comes to stealth technology.
One thing is however clear though, this showcases a fundamental shift in Japanese policy, which needs to be analysed and studied. This particular incident is in a series of new directions in Japanese foreign and military policy which is significant. First of all, let’s for the sake of argument take the case that Japanese forces are not going to weaponise this plane for themselves, it still is a significant showcase of Japanese technology for potential buyers, in Asia and abroad. Some of those planes might even be weaponised by Japan for export, and that will definitely have impact in the military balance in Asia, at a much cheaper price that any similar platforms produced by US.
The second thing is, Japan’s policy changes reflect in other aspects as well. Japan has doubled the number of F-15 fighter jet deployment in southern island of Okinawa, near disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force now has about 40 F-15s on Okinawa’s Naha base, according to the defence ministry, which is striking distance from the disputed islands. It comes on the back of significant simultaneous military deployments. Japan also moved about 20 F-15s from the Tsuiki base in the southwestern island of Kyushu to Naha. Japan regards these islands as the frontline of defence.
It also recently came out in the open, that US policy makers urged to Japan to consult and take into consideration Beijing’s objections, before the controversial island buying in 2012. In the recently declassified email to Hillary Clinton, dated Sept 3, 2012, about a week before Japan’s purchase of the Senkakus claimed by China and Taiwan, then U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell mentioned to have urged Japan’s then Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae and the Japanese government to “consult and advise Beijing on their plans.”, the Japan Times reported. Japan didn’t pay any heed, and went on to purchase the islands anyway, and that unleashed a wave of protests.
So, here’s the question, is US not being able to control or influence Japanese behavior? Japan has recently shown signs of independent foreign policy decision making, and it becomes hard to analyse how much of it is nudged by America and how much is Japanese behavior. For example, Japanese détente with South Korea is definitely a push from US which wants Japan to be a junior security partner in East Asia, and for that the historical adversarial relations between Japan and South Korea must cease. Japan’s growing security intimacy and relations with Vietnam and India on the other hand seems independent foreign policy posturing.
Now, IR theorists therefore should question, what if Japan is not controlled anymore by US? There is evidence that US is reclining, and not being able to control its allies in Saudi Arabia and Turkey…when it comes down to a devastating, pointless and paranoid war in Yemen, or a fratricidal conflict with the finest fighting forces against ISIS, the Kurds. What if the situation in Japan is the same, and the forces unleashed by nationalism keeps snowballing? No one is suggesting that Japan would invade other countries, ofcourse not. But the chances of Japanese adventurism might drag US and China into a broader conflict, albeit reluctantly. Or worse, it might instigate smaller powers to stake claim or meddle in areas which are traditionally beyond their reach to interfere. Perception and resolve as I have mentioned before is a very important thing in IR, and policy makers, not just in Japan and China, but also in US should keep note of these developments.