A photo by the United States Navy showing the US Navy aircraft carrier USS ‘Carl Vinson’ and other warships participating in an exercise with Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyers in the Philippine Sea last month. EPA PIC

BY now, northeast Asia is used to living with a rising China. Beijing is no longer feared as an unpredictable power.

On the contrary, many in the region have embraced China as an economic power although it remains militarily assertive in the South China Sea (SCS).

After investing heavily in the construction of artificial islands, complete with airstrips and gun placements in the SCS, it will not give up on its claims without a fight.

Reports that the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF-Navy) had joined the United States Carrier Group Carl Vinson in Korean waters would certainly make China and the two Koreas jittery.

These countries view a rearmed Japan with suspicion. Against an uncertain future, China and North Korea are more likely to coordinate their positions against the combined US and Japanese forces.

Of course, the US can handle North Korea without China. However, the former is not Syria.

Before mounting any offensive, Washington should note its bases in South Korea are within striking range of North Korean missiles.

There is no way China will co-operate with any US strategy that increases America’s influence, and any effort to strengthen the Japanese military profile in the region.

Besides, with the US boosting the defence capabilities of South Korea and Japan, it will be suicidal for China to acquiesce in any US actions on the Korean Peninsula.

Regional leaders must consider the ramification of an inward- looking US on the region and Japan that is militarising itself.

It is the latter that worries me. A remilitarised Japan will change the geo-strategic equation in the region. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is beefing up its military ostensibly as a hedge against an assertive China.

But the real objective is to become a global military player. The hawkish prime minister plans to upgrade the Japanese Self-Defence Force, which is already one of the finest fighting units in the region.

Without thinking through the far-reaching consequences of such a policy, he is set on removing Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution to re-embrace belligerency that it renounced following its defeat in 1945.

Japan has the best-equipped modern navy in the region. The JMSDF-Navy comprises a helicopter carrier, two Aegis cruisers with sophisticated radars and battle management systems, and some 34 destroyers and nine frigates of various types.

It also has some 80 anti-submarine warfare or maritime patrol aircraft.

In firepower terms, the JMSDF-Navy is more potent than the combined navies of nine Asean states. It is as formidable as the Royal British Navy (minus nuclear weapons).

Though, small by comparison with the former Imperial Japanese Navy of World War 2, it can still punch above its weight.

Under his watch, Abe has increased the defence budget for five successive years.

If Tokyo were to spend 3.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) this year on defence, it would have spent as much as Washington did in 2015; and, it would have exceeded China’s defence budget last year.

Tokyo currently spends slightly more than one per cent of its GDP on defence and it is the fifth largest in the world.

Abe is taking a big political gamble with its military policy.

By revising Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution to renounce war “as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”, Abe-san has officially notified the international community that Japan will become a state capable of waging war once again, contrary to what was agreed to by the victors of World War 2, who founded the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.

Under the Charter of the UN (Part VII1), Japan and two other states were recognised as “enemy states”.

With the changing geopolitical equations and economic fortunes, comes the concern or a likelihood of re-calibration, or readjustment of political partnerships in the region.

Political alignments and re-calibration are two sides of the same coin.

The dictum that “there are no permanent friends and no permanent foes/enemies” is still valid.

The writer, B. A. Hamzah is a student of geopolitics and regional security, defence policy and commentator on maritime security. He can be reached via bahamzah8@hotmail.com

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