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Naveed Ahmad

Abe's Japan uses military hardware to appeal to GCC

Japan's premier is hoping to build military relations with Gulf leaders [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 December, 2017

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Comment: As Saudi Arabia and Iran's regional tension continues to build, the Gulf's appetite for western, Chinese and Japanese arms will only grow, writes Naveed Ahmad.

The United Arab Emirates is a country with fetish for top-of-the-line flying machines.

The Dubai Air Show is one glaring example. While the aviation industry is awestruck by the Emirates' decision to buy 40 of Boeing's latest 787-10 Dreamliner aircraft, it's no secret that Abu Dhabi negotiated with Lockheed Martin for two squadrons - 24 planes - of F-35 Lightnings, the top-of-the-line fifth generation stealth fighter jet.

No non-NATO country has yet been part of the F-35 programme.

The Emirati Air Force already flies the world's most advanced F-16 Viper jets, reportedly even superior to the US Air Force's. It also serves as home to US F-22 Raptors. Priced at $7 billion, a set of high-altitude anti-missile batteries with a range further than Patriot missile defence system guards the tiny Gulf state's airspace.

A C-2 military transport aircraft from Japan's Self-Defense Air Force is also making its global aviation exhibition debut in Dubai. The product of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the plane has a cruising range of 7,600km - double that of the C-130 Hercules. Not only can it carry 400 percent more cargo, it can also carry amphibious vehicles.

Since Abu Dhabi is a close US ally, Tokyo can clinch the deal. But the sale has yet to come to frution. For starters, the Emiratis are interested in an unspecified number of C-2 aircraft. Japan has acquired only six these for an assortment of roles. Each aircraft has an estimated value of $175 million.

For many, it may sound bizarre that Tokyo has a special niche in making state-of-the-art war machinery. Japanese leaders hope their export will lower costs for domestic procurement, increase technological co-operation with allies, and help the country to become a proactive military power in the wake of a rising China and diminishing US super-power.

Abu Dhabi is one of Japan's potential clients with deep pockets; others include Doha and Riyadh. India, Indonesia, Australia and the UK see Japanese military hardware as low-hanging fruit, given their alignment with the US. For now, Tokyo offers Kawasaki P-1 maritime surveillance plane, C-2 military transport aircraft, ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft and Soryu class ultra-quite submarines as full-fledged systems, while sub-systems include anti-tank guided missiles, radar systems, image sensors and mobile communication solutions.
If Japan's technology is near perfect and the Gulf nations have deep pockets and a willingness to spend, then what are the odds?

The erstwhile supplier of sophisticated spare parts for the defence industry, Tokyo starting developing its stealth fighter, the F-3, after the Pentagon refused to sell F-22s to Japan. The programme can bring Japan back into the lucrative defence hardware business with an injection of $40 billion - provided political and bureaucratic delays can be overcome before June.

Last year, Japan received its first F-35, jet with three others to follow from Lockheed Martin's Texas production line. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will assemble Japan's remaining 38 F-35As in the country - all units will come with Japanese tweaking in technology as well as design.

In the same fashion, Japan's F-16 - named the F-2 - is also unique, with a larger airframe than the American edition. It's therefore only a matter of time before Tokyo begins exporting major military platforms, and not just spare parts.

Japan's first major military sale is likely to be a search-and-rescue US-2 amphibious aircraft - a seaplane.

If Japan's technology is near perfect and the Gulf nations have deep pockets and a willingness to spend, then what are the odds?

Tokyo has yet to entirely dump its pacifist guarantee enshrined in its constitution. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's victory in parliamentary elections paved the way towards his ambition of making Japan great again, sort of.

While realising the Abenomics doctrine, the premier wants Japan to be an assertive regional player bonded with alliances and military-to-military relationships.

The Japanese Constitution which came into effect on May 3, 1947, renounced the "sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes" while aspiring to promote global peace based on justice and order. Article 9 also forbade Japan from maintaining aggressive armed forces.

The provision served as a key confidence-building measure for the 48 nations which signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty (SFPT) on September 8, 1951.

America, the UK and France have deep military and diplomatic relations with the sheikhdoms, which play an unquestionably important in arms deals

Sixty-eight years and a week later, Japan passed two security bills - the kokusai heiwa shien hoan (International Peace Support Bill) and the heiwa anzen hosei seibi hoan (Peace & Security Legislation Development Bill). The first repealed ten security-related laws enacted in 1999 to remove the bar on contingency operations in Japan's regional neighbourhood. The second sought the revival of Japan's right for "collective self-defence", which also includes military support for a friendly state under attack.

The amendments were controversial not only for political but also procedural reasons. Abe bulldozed them through the parliament, denying public or parliamentary debate and a vote. Instead, he rubber-stamped them with the cabinet's approval. Before dissolving the parliament and announcing snap polls, the 63-year-old leader set 2020 as the deadline for purging Article Nine from the constitution.

Last month, Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition won 312 seats out of 465 seats in the Diet. The longest-serving post-Second World War chief executive and by far the most hawkish, can amend any law with the two-third majority he now has. Repealing Article Nine may cause public outcry - but with few implications on the vote in the bicameral house.

For now, Abe's Japan can deploy troops subject to compliance with three conditions: (i) if an attack against a foreign nation risks Japan's sovereignty, (ii) it is inevitable to resort to the military for security and defence, and, (iii) the minimum necessary deployment can be ensured.

In one of his speeches on the issue, the prime minister stretched the scope of the law as far as mine-clearing operations in the Strait of Hormuz, on the pretext that about 80 percent of Japan's crude oil imports pass through the narrow and contested channel.

Critics at home and abroad believe that the conditions are vague, thus susceptible to political manipulation. The other objection hits at the heart of legislation: whose interest will deployment serve, Japan's or America's? While Beijing has not explicitly commented on the changing law, Seoul has asked Tokyo to manifest utmost transparency and to respect the concerns of neighbouring states.

Japan's enormous potential to bite into the massive GCC defence trade pie depends on certain crucial factors. Most importantly, how soon the Japanese public and parliament submit to Abe's ambition for a more assertive role for their country in the region and the world.

Supposing Article Nine is revoked constitutionally, Tokyo will be directly competing against Washington, Paris and London for arms sales. And technological sophistication and price are not the only factors governing defence acquisition on the Arab peninsula.

America, the UK and France have deep military and diplomatic relations with the sheikhdoms, which play an unquestionably important role in arms deals. Japan is nowhere near its competitors on this front. China is a rather new but effective player in the GCC arms market, thanks to its competitive products, short delivery deadlines and lower price tags.

With Iran's proxy footprint widening across the MENA region, the appetite for western, Chinese and Japanese arms will remain

The Japanese people may not be comfortable with their corporations selling deadly weapons to countries in regions as volatile as the Gulf.

After all, the ambition to stand by allies and protect national interest elsewhere comes with responsibility - especially for a nation still grappling with the stigma of Second World War atrocities. ShinMaywa, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Hitachi, and Toshiba have worked hard to rewrite their wartime histories.

Meanwhile, the Japanese arms industry has thrived in an insular domestic market. It has yet to embrace the market discipline necessary for marketing, negotiating and delivering large scale orders with elaborate after-sale commitments. Positioning itself within an exceptionally competitive market will require a decade, notwithstanding the quality of Japanese products.

The question of affordability remains no less crucial for the Japanese manufacturers. Unlike electronic hardware and automobiles, the arms market is an entirely different ballgame. Price will matter even for the deep-pocketed.

And then there are potential buyers in southeast and south Asia who may not even be able to afford them. Will the Japan Bank for International Cooperation be able or empowered to provide low-interest loans?

The existing precedent of Japanese overseas development assistance to finance coastal patrol ships for the Philippines and Indonesia is an aberration, impairing the ambition of becoming an arms export giant.

Japan's entry to the global defence market could revolutionise the theatre of war with technological advancements stranger than science fiction. Japan is embarking on a tenacious task of striking a delicate balance between pragmatism and pride.

The quest for state-of-the-art weaponry stems from the snobbish egos of Gulf leaders. The threat-perception matrix is often a lesser factor than impressing friendly neighbours. With Iran's proxy footprint widening across the MENA region, the appetite for western, Chinese and Japanese arms will remain.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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