Tags: Japan, Navy, Soft Power
Japan’s neighbors have never been comfortable with the island nation’s quasi-Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). JMSDF is legally a civilian service, operating under the famous Article 9 of the Japan’s constitution requiring that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. But, JMSDF’s de jure status has done little to calm the fears of several nations in the region who have nervously watched every move by the small organization (officially JMSDF consists of only 46,000 personnel) since the JMSDF’s creation in the 1950s.
Recently, the legal limits on JMSDF have prompted some Japanese defense observers to argue for a turn to soft power. Now it looks like Japan might be doing exactly that. This month the United States sent one of its two hospital ships, USNS Mercy, on Operation Pacific Partnership 2010. This soft power cruise is just the latest instance of a new and growing mission for the Navy: health diplomacy. These humanitarian assistance operations started after the positive response to the Navy’s disaster relief mission after the Asian tsunami and gained an powerful advocate in current NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis when he was Commander of SOUTHCOM.
US health diplomacy cruises have always included personnel from ally countries. However, this year Japan has gone a step further, deploying a 13,000 ton Osumi flat-top warship to join the USNS Mercy during ports in Vietnam and Cambodia to support Pacific Partnership. The 584-foot ship, JMSDF LST 4003 Kunisaki, most closely comparable with the US Navy’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Kunisaki’s flat top allows for four helicopters (although some have claimed it was designed as a “pocket carrier”). Below, a well deck contains space for two hovercraft. Kunisaki’s deployment is, as far as I can tell, the one of the largest deployments of Japanese naval power to a foreign port since JMSDF’s creation. JMSDF port visits are uncommon in mainland Asia. In June 2008 a Japanese destroyer made the first port call in China by a Japanese warship since World War II.
Is Kunisaki’s port call the start of Japan’s soft power rising?