Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 12 January 2023

A menacing Russia and China pull Japan out of its past

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at an event in Canada on Thursday. (Blair Gable/Reuters)
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It takes a lot to break Japan’s post-1945 stance of reticence and restraint in military matters. 

But China and Russia have accomplished just that — by convincing Japanese leaders that they need “counterstrike” capability to protect themselves against growing threats.

Japan’s hawkish new stance will be on display Friday at a White House meeting between visiting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Biden. The Japanese leader will explain his decision in November to seek parliamentary approval to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product annually on defense, roughly doubling what Japan has been spending.

“This is an inflection point” for Asia, argues Kurt Campbell, who oversees regional policy for Biden’s National Security Council. It moves Japan from reliance on its own soft power and U.S. weapons to a real military partnership. And it redraws the security map, framing a NATO-like alliance of containment in the Indo-Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

Why is Japan taking this step toward remilitarization? One galvanizing moment for Japanese leaders, U.S. officials say, was when China and Russia flew six heavy bombers near Japan in a joint exercise on May 24, as Tokyo was hosting a meeting of the “Quad” partnership of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

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Japan expressed “serious concerns” about the flights. But China and Russia did it again in late November, sending two Chinese heavy bombers and two Russian planes over the Sea of Japan. This time Tokyo expressed “severe concerns,” again with no apparent response.

Another wake-up call came in August, when China fired five missiles into Japan’s “exclusive economic zone” during a spasm of military exercises after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan. “We have protested strongly through diplomatic channels,” said Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s former defense minister who now serves as a special adviser to the prime minister. The lesson was that “nothing in the Taiwan Strait stays in the Taiwan Strait,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, told me in an interview.

Japan has moved from talk to action over the past year. A big reason is shock over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coming less than a month after Russia and China announced a “no limits” partnership. “The world has changed in a dramatic fashion, and the Japanese know it,” Emanuel said.

Kishida, though a new and politically weak prime minister, moved aggressively to support Ukraine. Japan quickly sent military and humanitarian assistance, and in March it successfully lobbied eight of the 10 ASEAN countries to back a U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

“Kishida understood early that the Russian attack on Ukraine represented a blending of the Indo-Pacific and European worlds. He saw a fundamental challenge to world order,” says Campbell. So, rather than adopt the usual approach of relying on the United States to fix matters, he explains, Kishida “decided to make common cause with Europe.”

The heart of Japan’s security problem is missiles, and not just from China; North Korea regularly tests ballistic missiles that overfly Japanese territory. A decade ago, Japan invested heavily in antimissile technologies, hoping that this would blunt the threat. But several years ago, Japanese military planners realized that an adversary could overwhelm their missile-defense shield. They needed something more.

The “counterstrike” strategy should offer that. The United States will provide Japan with 400 to 500 Tomahawk missiles that can hit missile sites in China or North Korea. Japan also wants to protect its space-based defense assets, which include satellite-guided bombs and a Japanese version of the U.S. Global Positioning System, from China’s expanding antisatellite arsenal. So, the Biden administration will extend the long-standing U.S. security treaty with Japan to cover attacks in space.

Japan’s new militancy will inevitably trigger a backlash in China, where there’s a deep antipathy to Japanese military power dating back to Japanese occupation in the 1930s and early ’40s. If you doubt it, just visit the museum in Nanjing that documents Japan’s savage assault on the city in 1937. Japan has disdained power projection since its defeat in 1945 partly in deference to such historical memories.

Japan is still a deeply peaceful country. But the weight of the past is easing, and younger Japanese want a stronger military to deal with belligerent neighbors. A poll last summer by Jiji Press showed that 75 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 supported increased defense spending, and over 60 percent of that age group favored Japanese “counterstrike capabilities.”

China is in the early stages of what might be the biggest military buildup in history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine effectively ended the post-Cold War era. Japan is reacting to those developments rationally. But beware: As the global order frays, the chain of action and reaction is only beginning.

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