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Militarization Can Help Japan Build Its Own Silicon Valley

Walter Russell Mead

Japan unveiled a fancy new stealth fighter prototype yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Ministry of Defense showed off a test aircraft called X-2 in a heavily guarded hangar at a factory here that is operated by Japan’s biggest military contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. Ministry officials said the plane would perform its first test flight as early as mid-February.

At 14 meters (46-feet) in length, the ¥40 billion ($340 million) red and white-painted X-2 is smaller than a standard jet fighter. It is unarmed and its engines are underpowered. Analysts say it would take many years for Japan to develop it into an actual warplane.

But that may not be the point. Rather than aiming to build its own plane, they say, Japan may be signaling its hopes of joining the U.S. or other allies in developing a fighter through an international partnership—a way for allies to develop ever more expensive weapons systems. By joining the small club of countries that possess stealth technology, including the U.S., Russia and China, Japan can show that it brings something to the table.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government may still be struggling to get the economy moving, but its acceleration of Japanese defense spending and weapons development is showing significant results. The X-2 is more than just a significant element of Japan’s aviation strategy. Although it is certainly that, it’s also a sign of how committed Japan is to using a revived military research and development program to turbocharge its high tech sector as it seeks a new era of economic dynamism.

Japan is learning from America here. U.S. defense budgets have helped Silicon Valley, pumping research money and creating a large market for high-tech products. Increasingly, tech is fungible—tech developed for military purposes is applicable to other uses and vice versa. Thanks to large military budgets, the U.S. has enjoyed a major advantage for decades now, and the dynamism of Silicon Valley and of the whole tech sector in the U.S., plus the advantages that gives the civilian economy, is a major factor in continued U.S. economic predominance. (Note: the key element in a lot of military tech these days is related to information gathering and processing; while other military tech has industrial applications — lighter materials developed for aircrafts can be used in civil planes and automobiles — info tech is at the heart of many civilian products).

Lots of countries have observed that, and China in particular has been thinking about how to replicate America’s success. Israel has also stunned the world with its very similar strategy. Israeli high tech, based also on military spending to a large degree and boosted by close relations with the US, has helped keep Israel’s armed forces ahead of the regional competition, supported Israel’s economic strength, and significantly increased Israel’s diplomatic clout and leverage with the United States. Japan, where military budgets were long cramped by pacifism, has only recently been able to make significant progress down this road.

But that progress is happening now. As this continues, look for the following: an accelerating cascade of new Japanese military tech, a growing push to export military products—especially into the bullish weapons markets of Asia and the Middle East, and spillover as Japanese tech companies look to use the military tech in civilian applications.

Many analysts thinking about the future of Japan make the mistake of focusing too much on GDP. GDP matters, but raising GDP numbers immediately isn’t as important to Abe’s strategic vision for the country as getting the new defense and tech-based strategy successfully launched. That is what can drive a future economic revival, even as it bolsters Japan’s military power vis-a-vis China, and its alliance power vis-a-vis the US—making it a more attractive partner and ensuring that Japan remains central in American strategic thinking.

Right now, Xi’s dream of a new kind of international relationship between the U.S. and China would institutionalize the greatest fear of Japanese strategists: that the U.S. would routinely do a lot of its global business with China without taking Japan into account. “Japan passing,” as this used to be known, with Japan becoming a kind of flyover state on the route between Washington and Beijing. Japan believes, and it is probably correct in this, that it can and must fight this development. Making itself an ever-more significant force in the world of military tech is one of the ways it can achieve this goal.

There’s a significant downside here from the world peace point of view. China resents Japan’s militarization, and its response will not necessarily make the world a calmer place. A tech-fueled arms race in East Asia between two great powers who hate and fear one another is probably not a recipe for the dawn of world peace. More fundamentally, the growing linkage between military spending, diplomatic standing, and national economic strength is likely to fuel this kind of behavior worldwide.

The naifs who thought that the internet and the coming of the tech economy would erode the power of the state and accelerate the move to a liberal world order in which military strength would matter less and less are heading for some unpleasant learning experiences.

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