In a tense East Asia, Japan strives for continuity

New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes to continue his predecessors’ preference for stability. But evolving risks posed by China and North Korea, as well as receding American influence, mean that Tokyo must more actively flex its defensive capacities and regional military deployments.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rides on a tank in Tokyo
Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may seek to maintain the policies of his predecessors in defense and foreign policy, but a changing environment may force change. © Getty Images
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In a nutshell

  • Japan’s choice of prime minister is a vote for stability
  • China and North Korea pose evolving threats
  • Tokyo must seek greater strategic depth to confront them

On October 4, 2021,  the new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Fumio Kishida was elected by the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament as the 100th prime minister of Japan. This was a choice in favor of continuity, one that was confirmed at the end of the month. This means that Japan will continue to be ruled by the same coalition, consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito.

Preferring stability

While the majority of Japanese voters bet on continuity, its external environment – in which the island nation Japan has to survive – is undergoing rapid change. This change is affecting the economy, but it also has important geopolitical implications.

Like his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister Kishida seeks stability. In his first speech as the new head of government, Mr. Kishida announced that both in its relations with its friends and allies (notably the United States) and in its dealings with China, Tokyo will pursue the same path as Prime Ministers Suga and Shinzo Abe. Indeed, the new premier was chosen thanks to the support given to him by Mr. Abe’s faction.

The problem is that in the past few months, the landscape – particularly the positions of the U.S. and of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the geopolitical environment in the Far East – have undergone substantive change, largely beyond the influence of Japan. Under these circumstances it is important to assess whether continuity remains a wise policy or whether it is the result of a dangerous, head-in-the-sand attitude.        

Burden of history

Japan is the only country in the world to have suffered from nuclear attacks. On the 6th and 9th of August, 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by American nuclear bombs, causing over 220, 000 deaths, mostly civilians. This not only brought about the total capitulation of Imperial Japan on August 15th, it also shaped the pacifist constitution, which was promulgated by Emperor Hirohito on November 3, 1946. 

That constitution, which has never been modified or amended, was written by Americans. Its most consequential article, article 9, states: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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.”

Japan has used this commitment to military restraint to keep a low profile in security matters and, instead, to rely on the U.S. During the Cold War as well as the short-lived era of globalization in the 1990s and 2000s, this strategy worked well – until the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. Tokyo got the message that it had to increase its contributions, and that the American commitment to the security of Japan was no longer beyond question. Particularly in the case of the Senkaku Islands dispute in the East China Sea, the Trump administration created doubts that the U.S. would go to war in Japan’s defense.

It was a useful coincidence that during this time of change in the U.S., Japan was led by a prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was not only the longest-serving prime minister since World War II but who was also genuinely interested in international affairs and held a worldview that went beyond the immediate neighborhood. Under Mr. Abe, Tokyo extended its economic presence in Southeast Asia and intensified its security cooperation with India and Australia. The establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), comprising the United States, Australia, India and Japan, is part of his legacy.

Security emergencies

The major challenges to Japan’s security are the Senkaku Islands dispute with China, the Korean Peninsula, Chinese threats to Taiwan, the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean. These challenges are not new but they have become more dangerous from Tokyo’s perspective. In many ways, Japan is faced with strategic emergencies that require more agile security and defense policies, a substantial enhancement of Japan’s military capabilities and a determined effort to enhance regional security through new and extended strategic cooperation with liberal democracies in Asia.

Under Mr. Abe, Japan began to recognize that, facing the new Chinese hegemon, the collective defense of liberty and democracy had become more urgent. Of course, during the Cold War, Japan had to be concerned about the Soviet Navy’s ambitions in the Pacific. But the Soviet Union was, at least at the end of the Indochinese wars and after the disaster in Afghanistan, a relatively complacent superpower regarding the Far East.

Tokyo faces threats that require more agile security and defense policies, and a substantial enhancement of its military capabilities.

With the rise of China, Japan faces an imminent threat to its security. Like Taiwan and Australia, as well as a number of Southeast Asian nations, Japan must  substantially increase its military capacities. Tokyo will have to enhance its security profile in the Far East and beyond, with Beijing closely watching new instruments to underpin Japan’s military strength. Japan might face this test sooner than later, around Taiwan and/or on the Korean Peninsula.

The Kishida government will be confronted with a dilemma: on the one hand, it wants to improve relations with China, but must also demonstrate more military resoluteness to the world. Key to this challenge will be dealing with North Korea.

An embarrassed Japan

Pyongyang has recently undertaken a number of provocative rocket tests. The regime aims to demonstrate that despite substantial economic hardship, North Korea maintains its ambitious and dangerous program of increasing military strength, both conventional and nuclear. The tests were also a message directed at Washington to pay more attention to the Korean Peninsula. It is no secret that Pyongyang resents the Biden administration’s reluctance to engage in one way or another with North Korea.

Of course, the message sent by North Korea’s missile tests was mostly meant for its immediate neighbors, namely China, South Korea and Japan. To Beijing, which keeps North Korea’s economy afloat, Pyongyang’s meaning is clear: we will continue to embarrass and humiliate Japan.

People in Seoul watch footage of a North Korean missile launch
Provocative rocket tests by North Korea continue to show that the regime reach the Japanese archipelago and Tokyo, and that Pyongyang has the capacity of nuclear blackmail. © Getty Images

Tokyo has to take note of North Korea’s increasingly threatening conventional and nuclear capabilities, to which Japan on its own has no credible response. The rocket tests demonstrate that North Korea can reach the Japanese archipelago, that it can launch rockets with impunity, that Tokyo is within its reach and that Pyongyang has the capacity of nuclear blackmail.

North Korea, therefore, does dirty work that China is unwilling to engage in, providing Beijing with the additional satisfaction of seeing its historical rival humiliated by a third-rate power and economic basket case.

The need for strategic depth

With the rise of the People’s Republic of China and the realignment of American influence in the world, the need for strategic depth has taken on new importance. We have witnessed this most recently in South Asia, with the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban rule. After the American withdrawal, the Pakistani intelligence service quickly filled the vacuum. It is an open secret that control of Afghanistan is central to Islamabad’s ambition of enhancing its strategic depth vis-a-vis India.

Tensions between the U.S. and China in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea stem from an intense rivalry about strategic depth. With the numerous islands taken over by China in the South China Sea, Beijing has clearly been substantially strengthened in a crucial part of the Asian seaways. In this context, the return of Taiwan under mainland China’s sovereignty must be a key ambition. It is easy to see how vital the South China Sea and Taiwan are for the cordon sanitaire that Washington wants to establish.

Where does all this leave Japan? Tokyo’s thinking may not be much different from that which led to the rivalry and eventual war with the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. Then and now, the Japanese economy is extremely dependent on the open sea lanes that lead through the Pacific Ocean, particularly the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Its entire supply chain system – whether in import of food, energy and essential raw materials, or the export of its goods – depends on the unimpeded access to the sea lanes, harbors and markets in the Indo-Pacific.

Enhanced strategic depth is vital for the survival of Japan and for its continued prosperity as a top global economy. How can Tokyo achieve what is required to deal with the North Korean threats and with the aggressive challenges of the People’s Republic? The answer until recently was to rely on the U.S. alliance; even today, the American bases on the Okinawa archipelago are considered one of the most important security arrangements anywhere. But with the new position of the U.S. in Asia, the bilateral alliance with the United States is no longer enough.

Tokyo’s thinking now may not be much different from that which led to the rivalry, and eventual war, with the United States.

The Quad is one piece of Japan’s search for strategic depth. In the past, Quad members Australia and India were seen by Japan’s security establishment as marginal. Those days are gone; Tokyo has taken note of the recently established pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. (AUKUS), a boost to Western democracy and  economic interests in Australasia. It appears to be a matter of time when Japan will join, or whether other instruments will be created.

This again redirects our attention to the Korean Peninsula. Japanese-South Korean relations have lately taken a turn for the worse. Their difficult history continues to weigh on bilateral ties, and Japan observes with interest the changing climate in relations between the two Koreas. However, it is highly unlikely that tensions will ease for a lasting period. South Korea will have presidential elections in March 2022 and the current president, Moon Jae-in, cannot stand for reelection. Before the new president has taken office, Tokyo does not expect much movement on the Korean Peninsula – except the usual  North Korean rocket tests.

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Scenarios

In the near future, there is only one scenario for the enhancement of Japan’s strategic weight: one of “incremental change.” Indeed, the tectonic shifts in East Asia’s geopolitics would require the complete abrogation of Article 9 in the Japanese constitution. It might be justifiably argued that it is high time Japan gets rid of this self-imposed restraint. Today’s situation is fundamentally different from the times immediately after the capitulation of the empire.

The U.S. occupation force and most notably General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, sought to once and for all contain Japanese imperialism, and to that end worked on breaking the bellicose spirit of the Japanese military and political elites. There are no such ambitions left in today’s Japan.

The current Japanese constitution was designed by the Americans, but there is no international obligation that constrains the free will of the Japanese people to revise this constitution, and most notably to repeal Article 9. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had the removal of this article as one of his main political ambitions. He did not ultimately succeed, due both to dissent within his own party and to the firm opposition of the New Komeito, with whom the LDP forms a coalition government.

Where Mr. Abe failed, it is hardly likely that Prime Minister Kishida will succeed. In any case, the majority of the Japanese people are not ready for such a far-reaching move. A revision of the constitution would require a popular referendum.

Bearing in mind that the strategy of constitutional reform remains a nonstarter, the strategy of incremental change is the only plausible path. This implies a  strengthening of the defensive capacities of the armed forces, with Japan spending much more on its defense budget. Like President Trump, the Biden administration is insisting on Tokyo doing that very thing. The attention here is not only paid to the Chinese threat but also to the acute danger the North Korean arms race poses to Japan and the entire Pacific region.

A substantial increase in military equipment is only one side of the strategy of incremental change. The other, equally important side is the deployment of Japanese military assets. Again, the traditional restraint to the Japanese archipelago and its territorial waters is a self-imposed measure – as a sovereign nation, Japan must be able to deploy its military assets in the manner it deems fit, with or without partners. The Quad now points in this direction and one should expect other initiatives to further enhance Japan’s geopolitical presence in the Far East.

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