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The Cable

For Japan, a New Military Satellite and, Maybe Later, a New Emperor

Japan looks to be able to communicate more effectively in response to natural disasters — and increasingly aggressive neighbors.

satellite

The slow but steady shifting of Japan’s postwar pacifism got another boost Tuesday, when Tokyo launched its first military communications satellite.

The Kirameki-2 satellite is the first of three poised to replace the civilian satellites the Japanese military currently uses. The new satellites, which will allow for high-speed, high-capacity communication, are being put in place with an eye toward responding more effectively and efficiently to natural disasters, but also to help respond to growing security challenges.

While U.S. allies across Asia worry that the United States is pulling back on its commitments, Japanese policy makers are bracing for an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and a North Korea that some believe has enough plutonium for 10 nuclear bombs. Better comms will give the growing Japanese military better capability. It will also help Japanese peacekeeping missions abroad, now that they’ve been authorized.

The new satellites don’t necessarily constitute re-militarization, as Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. Japan is pursuing a policy of constitutionally-mandated, pro-active pacifism, not aggressive militarization, he said. Tokyo is actually reverting to a more “normal state,” he said.

Still, the new satellite is far from the first move Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan has taken in this direction. In December, Japan said it will increase its Coast Guard budget to 210 billion yen ($1.8 billion) to add five new patrol ships and over 200 more personnel. Also in December, Japan added a spending boost for defense for the fifth consecutive year, of about $44 billion.

But that’s dwarfed by other increases in defense spending in Asia, especially by China, Cooper said. (Indeed, on Tuesday, China’s Gaofen-3 SAR satellite, which improves the ability to monitor activities in disputed waters, became operational.) A few new patrol ships and a few more defense dollars, he said, are a way to ensure Japan can continue to maintain the pacifist status quo by keeping that which would threaten its stability at bay.

Indeed, China is circling the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in China), disputed rocks in the East China Sea. Beijing claims most of the South China Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are talking very tough on China — threatening to defend U.S. interests there with force if necessary — which has some in Tokyo worried that Japan will be pulled into a conflict.

Others are more concerned that the Trump administration may not be particularly interested in working with Japan. As one of his first executive actions, Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal brokered mainly between Abe and then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

Japan, too, could be undergoing some political shifts. On Monday, a government panel essentially gave the Japanese parliament the green light to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate. The 83-year-old would pass power to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56. It would be the first time a Japanese emperor has abdicated the throne in two centuries.

Incidentally, the Quaker-educated Emperor Akihito’s reign — it began in 1989 — has been marked in large part traveling to battlefields and memorials, bearing witness to the ravages of war in Asia. Japan’s muscular pacifism is meant to make sure his son doesn’t have to.

Update, Jan. 24 2017, 4:50 pm ET: This piece has been updated to reflect that the Chinese Gaofen-3 SAR satellite is now operational.

Photo credit: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

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