Updated: Sep 13
By Joseph Skinner
Japan, a famously pacifist country is slowly coming to terms with the world order under an unreliable USA. Japanese voters are increasingly supporting rearmament, given the tension across east-Asia from regional bully China and the grandstanding of North Korea. If Chinese actions in Hong-Kong and the South China sea are any indication, the threat of conflict with Taiwan is sure to escalate. The important question is how will this change in policy steer Japanese relations with the United States?
© The Japan Times
A Change of Direction
Japan’s rearmament is a remarkable break from precedent and a movement away from the United States. Since World War II, Japan has had a pacifist constitution. Accompanied by military occupation by the USA, Japan has had little to no armed conflict to contend with since the second world war. Under new prime minister Fumio Kishida, Japan clearly does not anticipate this state of affairs to continue, unveiling a $320 billion military build-up plan in the past fortnight.
The plan is a culmination of promises by Fumio Kishida, who was elected prime minister on pledges to increase defense spending substantially. The sweeping five-year plan stockpiles spare parts and munitions, reinforces logistics, and comes with a 70% approval rating by the Japanese public. Additionally, Japanese defence minister Yasukazu Hamada has stated that the world has entered a “new era of crisis”, begging the question: what would cause a country that refers to its armed forces as self-defence forces to pursue this intrepid approach?
The Chinese Strongman
The main reason is China, broadcasting territorial ambitions to the world. Of most concern to Japan is China’s aspirations for the incorporation of Taiwan into its territory. The loss of Taiwan to the People's Republic of China would be disastrous for Japan, as it jeopardises key shipping lanes that supply most of Japan’s oil, of which it has no natural reserves.
Furthermore, in invading Taiwan, China is likely to capture Japanese Islands which are only 150km from Taiwan, to establish air defences and fend off counterattacks. China has cemented this danger towards Japan in its extensive military exercises conducted around Taiwan with ballistic missile tests landing dangerously close to Japanese-held islands, warning Japan to not interfere in any conflict over Taiwan.
China also represents a threat to East-Asian stability in its efforts to assert control over its claims in the South China Sea. Military bases under China in the area have been greatly expanded in recent years to increase Chinese control. However, a newer phenomenon caught on satellite imagery has highlighted China’s use of militia “fishing boats”. Using these boats, China transports equipment to carry out excavation and construction work in previously unoccupied areas of the South China Sea, establishing new islands for military purposes.
The final facet of China’s expansionist stance is demonstrated in its designs on Hong Kong. Since Hong Kong left British administration in 1997, it has been on a slow path towards Chinese rule. In recent years especially, China has exerted its influence as Hong Kong implements legal rulings such as the National Security Law to arrest anyone deemed criticising or protesting mainland China.
Since the law has passed, many independent media outlets have closed, journalists have become political prisoners, and citizens have faced ever-increasing surveillance and censorship as China closes its vice-like grip on Hong Kong. This shows that China’s territorial goals are a priority, meaning the situations in Taiwan and the South China Sea have the potential to escalate.
Troubles from the Korean Peninsula
China’s smaller authoritarian sibling North Korea provides further reasons for Japan to increase defence spending. Only a month ago North Korea tested several missiles over Japanese islands, the first missiles over mainland Japan since 2017.
This is a strong change in course for North Korea, as these missile tests with a history of catastrophic failures are usually tested at sharp angles to avoid overflying neighbouring countries. This extraordinary action was purported to be a response to large-scale naval drills conducted between the USA, Japan, and South Korea; something Pyongyang views as a rehearsal for invasion.
However, relations between South Korea and Japan are not as strong as one would expect in the presence of authoritarian bully China. During the Abe-Moon era in the 2010s Japanese-South Korean relations were far from ideal, due to incidents such as the firing of South Korean forces on a Japanese surveillance aircraft over the Sea of Japan.
The USA has facilitated rapprochement between its two major allies in the region, especially under the Biden administration and its tougher stance on China. However, this improvement is under question as in the recently revised security plan, Japan reiterated its claim to South Korea’s southernmost islets of Dokdo. This reveals the issues that arise with Japan’s rearmament which risks inflaming unnecessary tensions.
Ties to the United States
Japan’s rearmament could not only affect its relationship with South Korea but also regarding the USA. Japan has relied on US military bases on its islands for an offensive military force. However, these bases are controversial and not entirely supported by Japanese citizens, in part due to several high-profile incidents involving US military servicemen.
Furthermore, the USA’s internal politics have made it an unreliable stalwart against expansionist power, leaving countries to fend for themselves. Germany, another losing participant of the second world war, has also increased defence spending in the wake of the war in Ukraine as it recognises the shortcomings of reliance on the USA.
To boot, while Germany develops its fighter jet with Spain and France, Japan has elected to jointly develop a next-generation fighter jet with Italy and Great Britain as opposed to the USA. This shows that the American military presence is not enough anymore, and Japan recognises it, increasing military spending accordingly.
Japan in a Changing World
The world nowadays looks bleak as a pacifist, and Japan is facing up to that reality. With authoritarian powers making land grabs left and right, the world is in an unusual moment of tension as countries wait to see what arises for them. Following the combination of American failure to guarantee security and an ever-hungry China, Japanese voters have finally put in power someone to do it. The only question is whether Japanese rearmament follows through to its deadline of 2027 or follows Germany in ebbing away.
Sources: The Japan Times, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, Stars and Stripes
Written by Joseph Skinner