Japan has announced a massive increase in its military spending, which will allow it to project its power region-wide in response to China’s ‘strategic challenge’. Its neighbours aren’t happy.
On 27 November 2021 prime minister Fumio Kishida visited Camp Asaka, the Ground Self Defense Force (Japanese army) base north of Tokyo. He told the troops, ‘I will consider all options [for strengthening Japan’s defence capabilities], including a so-called enemy base strike capability ... The security environment surrounding Japan is changing at an unprecedented pace. Things that used to happen only in science fiction novels have become reality.’ Last December Kishida announced plans to double Japan’s defence budget to $315bn over five years, making it the world’s third largest after those of the US and China, and equivalent to 2% of GDP, in line with the NATO target.
These announcements, which fall within the framework of a new National Security Strategy released last August, have radically changed the armed forces’ remit: they will no longer be limited to defending Japan but will have the means to counterattack, and even neutralise military bases in unfriendly countries.
This hardly comes as a surprise. Last August Itsunori Onodera, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s national security research committee chairman, who is close to Kishida and served as defence minister under his predecessor Shinzo Abe, led a wargame with Taku Otsuka, an LDP member of the House of Representatives (the lower house of Japan’s National Diet), to determine what Japan should do if China invaded Taiwan. The Nikkei Asia’s diplomatic correspondent Moriyasu Ken said, ‘They talked about what to do if China simultaneously invaded Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands [also claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands]. “Oh my goodness, what should we do? Should we start by evacuating Japanese nationals from Taiwan? Do we have time to help the Americans with Taiwan?” It was total chaos. Eventually, they thought it would be best to focus on the Senkakus.’
At the time, the atmosphere in Japan was tense. A couple of days after US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, five ballistic missiles launched by the Chinese military during exercises around Taiwan landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Ken said, ‘China clearly wants to test the US-Japan alliance over the next few years. Washington’s official position is that the slightest attack on Japanese territory — say on Yonaguni Island [just 100km east of Taiwan, at the tip of the Okinawa archipelago] would be equivalent to dropping a bomb on New York. In practice, it’s not that clear-cut.’
What the Japanese know
From satellite surveillance, Japan knows the Chinese military have been training in the Gobi desert for an attack on an air base, using a mock-up of the US base at Kadena, in Okinawa. Masashi Murano of the Hudson Institute thinktank in Washington believes they would first neutralise the Kadena base if they invaded Taiwan. They would ‘[neutralise] airstrip networks in Okinawa and Kyushu early in the conflict with a salvo of ballistic and cruise missiles, along with cyber and electromagnetic disruption campaigns’ (1). The US insists that its 30,000-strong military presence in Okinawa is vital, if only to protect local residents. Last October the US ambassador to Tokyo visited the Marine Corp’s Camp Hansen to open a farmers’ market, as a source of fresh produce for military families. That may not be enough to win over the local population, who mostly oppose US bases.
A recent Japanese defence ministry white paper describes China as an ‘unprecedented strategic challenge’ and a competitor, disrupting the region’s geopolitical and military balance and threatening the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan, which Japan insists it will defend (after occupying it from 1895 to 1945) (2). Also identified as adversaries are North Korea, which test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) near Japan throughout 2022, and since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia. Japan’s dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands, which the Soviet Union annexed at the end of the second world war, is still unresolved.
The security environment surrounding Japan is changing at an unprecedented pace. Things that used to happen only in science fiction novels have become reality
However, public opinion is by no means unanimously behind the new strategy. Ken says China has indeed increased its defence budget (by 7.1% or $229bn in 2022, compared with $768bn for the US) but believes ‘Xi Jinping didn’t strengthen his grip on power in order to make war — he did it because he’s getting ready to introduce measures to combat inequality that will be very unpopular ... with China’s wealthy, who behave like Saudi princes, with their Lamborghinis and villas in California. Xi wants Taiwan to reunite with China of its own volition, and nothing suggests that he plans to invade. A war on Taiwan will only drain China’s economy as China doesn’t have oil like Russia does, so they can’t afford to do anything silly. Xi hasn’t out ruled military intervention, but his core message is of a return to the roots of communism,’ which, according to Xi, is incompatible with war.
What the LDP’s opponents criticise most is the scale of the increase in military spending and the new strategy’s offensive element. Japan remains attached to the pacifist constitution the US imposed after it surrendered in 1945 and especially to article nine, which states: ‘The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes ... In order to accomplish [this aim], land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.’
Regular pacifist protests
Pacifist defenders of this principle regularly demonstrate outside the Diet building in Tokyo. One afternoon in mid-November I watched 6,000 protestors, a few with megaphones, face Japanese police equipped with little plastic speaking trumpets. Everyone remained behind lines painted on the ground and police tape. One charity worker had pockets full of pamphlets with slogans such as ‘Peace cannot be achieved by force’, ‘Military expansion is a one-way street’ and ‘Don’t let our islands become a fortress’. He was disappointed that most of the demonstrators were elderly.
‘Young people here are quite insular. Very few speak a foreign language,’ said a doctor from a large hospital in the university quarter of Gotanda.‘They live in a vacuum, focussed on their own day-to-day concerns. They aren’t aware of the real external threats. They agree with the government when it says we need to increase our defence capabilities, but tell themselves that, at the end of the day, our big strong US allies will save us.’ A youth planning to study law said that although he understood the government’s position in wanting to help the US protect Taiwan, ‘Japan’s young people won’t want to fight. Helping the Americans see off the Chinese is not for us.’ Although Japan doesn’t have compulsory military service, he could see himself joining the Self Defense Forces as a reservist: ‘If the Chinese invade Taiwan, Okinawa will be next, then Kyushu. We’ll have to defend ourselves.’
The Japanese and their government see the US as the lynchpin of national security. Kimitoshi Morihara, executive committee member in charge of foreign affairs for the Japanese Communist Party (which won 7.6% of the vote in the 2021 House of Representatives election), told me the LDP ‘don’t care’ whether Japan makes its own decisions and ‘feel no shame about being the junior partner in the alliance with the US. However, one success of long-standing propaganda by the LDP is that half the population blames the constitution for being “US-made”, written and imposed by US to strip Japan of the right to have an army ... they claim. Nationalists do care about the fact Japan cannot show its power by sending troop abroad like other prosperous countries.’
When the Communists (passionate defenders of constitutional pacifism and fiercely opposed to the new defence strategy and the US nuclear umbrella) hold a big meeting, their headquarters in Tokyo’s Sendagaya district is guarded by police. The day I met Morihara, buses filled with far-right ultra-nationalists kept driving past, with Japanese Imperial standards and Ukrainian flags fastened to their sides, broadcasting propaganda through loudspeakers.
Threats to Japan
The Japanese press talk of rallying to the US cause as if it were the obvious thing to do. Onodera says Russia invaded Ukraine believing it was a weak nation with no one to defend it: ‘Japan will not be attacked if it is strong and has allies to defend it’ (3). It’s an old saw spread overseas by Keio University professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, former speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to Abe. Last November, Taniguchi was invited to address both Asia Society Switzerland and the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy in Europe, in Strasbourg. Just before that, I heard him lecture at Keio University, in Tokyo. His message was impassioned: ‘Russia, North Korea, China... Never before has Japan faced three hostile nuclear powers in series, three non-democratic countries. This coincides with the fact that our country is ageing, its population is shrinking, and the economy is not growing fast enough. It’s almost impossible for Japan alone to grow as fast as China to counterbalance its power. The only rational option would be for Japan to work closely with likeminded peers, such as our long-standing ally the US, but also with Australia and India. And increasingly with European countries, especially France, because it has the world’s largest EEZ after the US, thanks to its territories in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.’
The fact is Japan is a US client state — militarily, economically and diplomatically
Taniguchi referred to the Indo-Pacific alliance, which Abe described in a 2007 speech to the Indian parliament on need to counter China’s growing military strength (4). Abe spoke of a ‘broader Asia’ spanning the whole Pacific, including Australia and the US. Morihara explained that this would be ‘an axis of democracies allied with the US against China. So when Japan acquires powerful long-range missiles as “deterrents” to China, these will be integrated into the US’s Indo-Pacific defence strategy. Washington will never allow us to use them independently: the fact is Japan is a US client state — militarily, economically and diplomatically. ’To reduce this asymmetry, the Japanese government has, however, agreed to jointly develop a fighter aircraft with Italy and the UK by 2035 (5).
A dangerous development
Japan’s new closer relationship with the US echoes the security treaty signed in 1951, at the end of the US occupation. The official Chinese press see it as a dangerous development. Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply in 2012, after the Japanese government bought three of the Senkaku Islands from their private (Japanese) owner, and Chinese naval incursions into their territorial waters became more frequent (6). Abe’s regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the 2.5 million Japanese who died in the second world war, including some convicted war criminals, did not help.
Things have been calmer in recent years. Following Abe’s assassination last July, Xi even stated that they had ‘reached [an] important consensus’ on building ‘China-Japan relations that meet the requirements of the new era’ (7). But since Japan announced its new defence strategy, the tone has changed. The daily Global Times, which closely follows the Chinese government line, said, ‘Given the devastation caused by Japan’s prior defence and military upgrading in history, particularly during WWII, the present policy change will have an impact on the whole area, as many nations will have to raise their military spending, leading to a new arms race in Northeast Asia’ (8).
China is not alone in being concerned about the new policy. South Korea has bitter memories of Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Old disputes are resurfacing, including the matter of ‘comfort women’ — Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese army. The historical facts are disputed by war crime deniers, whose numbers in Japan are rising. Since 2017 the governor of Tokyo has refused to attend the annual commemoration of the 1923 massacre of at least 2,600 Korean immigrants falsely accused by the Japanese population(with police and army backing) of having poisoned wells and planned violence in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed 100,000 and destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama. The government has recently increased the budget for ‘strategic dissemination of information overseas’ (9), channelling some of it through thinktanks tasked with conveying ‘the historical truth about Japan’.
Korea’s main concern relates to the fact that Japan is clearly envisaging the possibility of using its ‘counterstrike’ capabilities to ‘attack enemy bases’, including those of North Korea — since South Korea would then face a direct threat. The South Korean centrist daily Hankyoreh asked, ‘How are we supposed to accept this reality in which Japan designates the Korean Peninsula — constitutionally our sovereign territory [under article 3 of South Korea’s constitution] — as a target for pre-emptive strikes? (10)’Even South Korea’s conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol, who is keen to build closer relations with the US and Japan, distanced himself: ‘In matters that directly affect the security of the Korean Peninsula, or our national interest, it is clear that we must be closely consulted or that our prior consent must be sought’ (11).
There is nothing to suggest that North Korea is impressed by Japan’s threats. President Kim Jong-un regularly orders test launches of ICBMs, which land in Japan’s EEZ, off Hokkaido, more than 1,000km from their launch site. But according to Morihara, the aim is not really to intimidate Japan: ‘The North Koreans are desperate to talk to the US.Theyhave an insatiable need for attention.’ Though the Self Defense Forces don’t attempt to shoot down the missiles, the Japanese people are kept informed of the threat via their smartphones and information displays on subway and bullet trains (with apologies for the delay to their journey). The authorities also keep Japanese cryptocurrency companies informed of threats from the Lazarus Group, North Korea’s largest hacking organisation. Japan’s talks with North Korea, like those of the US, are currently deadlocked.
Though Russia is now a designated foe, that was not always the case. During his first term of office (2012-20), Abe played five rounds of golf with Donald Trump but met Vladimir Putin 27 times; there were many promises of economic cooperation, though no agreement to resolve the Kuril Island dispute. The islands form a barrier between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk, patrolled by Russian nuclear submarines; in 2016 Russia deployed a coastal missile system on the islands. It would see handing them back to a US ally as diminishing its own security.
Strategic partnership with Russia
Though Kishida backed sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine, he has maintained a strategic partnership with Russia on energy. Unlike ExxonMobil, Japanese investors have kept their stakes in Russian offshore gas exploration and production company Sakhalin-2. Japan buys around 60% of the 10 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas the company produces, meeting 10% of its energy needs. Kishida emphasises that Sakhalin-2’s gas and oil fields in the Sea of Okhotsk are extremely important for Japan’s energy security.
In Asia, Japan’s new defence strategy may damage trade relations with neighbours on which it is heavily reliant. In 2008 Japan signed a free trade agreement with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries (12), helping Japanese manufacturers to offshore production. Asics has made most of its sports shoes in Cambodia since 2013; Sony has a Home Cinema System factory in Malaysia; Mitsubishi has acquired two companies that provide consumer loans via smartphone apps, in Indonesia and the Philippines, to make it easier for customers in those countries to buy its locally built cars. There are also some surprising cultural links: the city of Itami in Hyogo Prefecture recently donated an organ to St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam. Japan is now the second largest foreign investor in Vietnam, after Singapore, and the largest importer of seafood from Vietnam.
This can sometimes lead to Japan supporting countries that are in difficulties on the international scene. Last October it abstained on a UN Human Rights Council resolution on alleged human rights violations by Sri Lanka. Japan is Sri Lanka’s second largest creditor after China. In return, the Sri Lankan authorities muted its response in March 2021, when Wishma Sandamali, a university graduate and English teacher in her home country who had entered Japan on a student visa planning to teach English to children in Japan, died in her cell at an immigration detention centre in Nagoya after being denied adequate medical care. She had been held for several months after it was discovered that her visa had expired when she visited a local police station to file a complaint about domestic violence.
Unlike the ASEAN countries, India has not attracted Japanese investors keen to build factories. Megha Wadhwa, a visiting fellow at Sofia University in Tokyo, notes that ‘these two nations do not have a history of serious conflict and yet ... their relationship has never risen above the level of lukewarm’ (13), even though many Indians are working in Japan. Thousands of English-speaking IT engineers have joined Japanese startups on ‘technical intern training’ visas, an immigration scheme designed to help small and medium enterprises bypass Japan’s zero-immigration policy. According to Wadhwa, ‘Indian migrants have definitely contributed to creating awareness about India in Japan and Japan in India. Over the years, India has become the IT country, one of the upcoming powers [whereas in the past] it was just about curry, snakes and Ayurveda.’ Japan and India also have a joint space programme that aims to explore the far side of the moon by 2030 — to compete with China, which landed a robotic spacecraft there in 2019.
‘It’s not necessarily high-tech’
Although Japan has aligned itself with the US strategic vision, it is affected by the US’s economic sanctions against China. Sony, which dominates the global market for CMOS image sensors used in smartphone cameras, can no longer sell them to Huawei. Yet Japan is still a bellwether of what the Chinese middle class are likely to buy.
‘And it’s not necessarily high-tech. If it does well in Japan — design, packaging, fashion, cosmetics, you name it — then Chinese consumers, and consumers in Taiwan, Korea and Thailand, will want it too. That’s a given,’ said Jérôme Chouchan, chairman of the French chamber of commerce and president of chocolate maker Godiva’s Japan and South Korea operations. Casual wear retailer Uniqlo is a striking example: of its 1,600 stores worldwide, 900 are in China, where it has been opening up to a hundred more each year. The company’s owner Tadashi Yanai, 73, is Japan’s richest person with an estimated net worth of $28bn, and keeps the Chinese government sweet by not getting involved in geopolitics or other divisive issues.
Since Hong Kong and its hedge funds lost their shine for foreign and even wealthy Chinese investors, the Japanese government has been trying to improve Tokyo’s attractiveness as a financial centre through tax incentives. It is still lagging some way behind Singapore, but the government hopes it will be a fallback for Western entrepreneurs who once saw China as the Asian Eldorado. Jack Ma, former boss of Alibaba, seems happy there.
By suddenly turning its back on pacifism, Japan has put itself at odds with China, which already has a strong presence across the region. Many Asian countries are reluctant to choose between China and the US (which promises to protect them). What will be their attitude towards Tokyo now?
(1) Gabriel Dominguez, ‘With focus on Nansei Islands, Japan prepares for potential Taiwan conflict’, The Japan Times, Tokyo, 20 December 2022.
(2) ‘Defense of Japan 2022’, Ministry of Defense, Tokyo, August 2022.
(3) See ‘LDP national security chairman seeks open debate on US nuclear umbrella’, The Japan Times, Tokyo, 1 June 2022.
(4) See Martine Bulard, ‘Is an Asian NATO imminent’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June2021.
(5) See Alexander Zevin, ‘UK and EU look for new roles after Brexit’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2023.
(6) See Olivier Zajec, ‘Battle over a string of islands’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2014.
(7) Statement by Xi Jinping, Chinese foreign ministry website, Beijing, 9 July 2022.
(8) ‘Japan’s passage of defense documents brings country away from track of post-war peaceful development: Chinese embassy’, Global Times, Beijing, 16 December 2022.
(9) Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ‘Un-remembering the massacre: How Japan’s “history wars” are challenging research integrity domestically and abroad’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 25 October 2021.
(10) Jung E-gil, ‘Yoon’s talk of freedom, solidarity and Japan’s ability to pre-emptively strike Korean Peninsula’, Hankyoreh, Seoul, 20 December 2022.
(11) Yonhap, Seoul, 19 December 2022.
(12) Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
(13) Megha Wadhwa, Indian Migrants in Tokyo, Routledge, London, 2021.