Under the US watch, Japan sets sail for militarization

On December 16, Japan unveiled its new defence strategy aimed at giving a massive boost to the country’s defence and offence capability. This is arguably the largest defence upgrade that Japan has unveiled since the Second World War when it became a ‘pacifist’ state. As the new documents show, Japan is now shunning its ‘pacifism’ in favour of a more assertive pursuit of military power capable of projecting Japanese power – and protecting Japanese national interests – outside of Japan. It is no longer self-defence only. In simple words, Japan’s target is the entire Pacific and the Indian Ocean region surrounding it. The documents reveal that the purpose is to enable Japan to “make effective counterstrike in an opponent’s territory as a bare minimum self-defence measure.” The changes – which the Japanese leader Fumio Kishida called a “turning point in history” – are set out in three documents: the National Security Strategy, the National Defence Strategy, and the Mid-Term Defence Program.

According to the details provided in these documents, Japan will spend around US$37 billion on counter-attack capabilities and developing long-range hypersonic weapons. Tokyo will also buy ship-launched, US-made Tomahawk missiles. US$7 billion will go to cyber warfare capabilities and an identical amount will go to developing space capabilities. Overall, Japan will spend US$316 billion on its military forces in five years. This spending will turn the so-called ‘pacifist’ Japan into the world’s third-largest military spender after the US and China. As the details show, Tokyo will resort to these systems if Japan is attacked, or an attack on a friendly nation [read: Taiwan] threatens Japan’s survival; if there are no appropriate means to repel an attack; and as long as any use of force is kept to a minimum.

The whole emphasis of this new strategy is on acquiring long-range missile strike capability. When it comes to “long-range”, the targets that Japan has in sight become clear: China, Russia, and North Korea. Kishida said this is his “answer to the various security challenges that we face.”

While tied very closely to the ongoing Russian special military operations in Ukraine and the tensions surrounding Taiwan, these challenges are neither natural nor unresolvable but have been brought to Japan by Washington itself as a way to revamp an ally in the Pacific and thus strengthen its global leadership.

The Russia-China and US connection here is evident. Japan’s strategy paper calls “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” a violation of international laws and considers the “strategic challenge” posed by China the biggest ever that “Japan has ever faced.” These changes were very quickly endorsed by the US, a country that had imposed a so-called ‘pacifist’ constitution on Japan after the Second World War.

The US ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a statement that “The Prime Minister is making a clear, unambiguous strategic statement about Japan’s role as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific”, adding that the PM “has put a capital “D” next to Japan’s deterrence.” “We welcome the release of Japan’s updated strategy documents … which reflect Japan’s staunch commitment to upholding the international rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, adding that “We support Japan’s decision to acquire new capabilities that strengthen regional deterrence, including counterstrike capabilities.”

Thus, Japan’s military ambitions, the kind of weapon systems it seeks to acquire, and the US support for this change means Japan has firmly placed itself with the Allies of the Second World War.

Indeed, this is a major turn of events, especially insofar as Japan is now a military partner of a country that nuked it, and this alliance is set against a country (China) that Japan had under its own (partial) occupation during the Second World War.

Is Japan Really Under Threat?

The argument provided, both by the US and Japan, is that the country is facing enormous security challenges. But who has threatened Japan? China’s major political issue is with the US vis-à-vis Taiwan. That does not involve Tokyo per se. But Tokyo sees growing US-China tensions around Taiwan as a threat to its interests. Apart from a territorial dispute around the Senkaku Islands, there are no palpable tensions in the China-Japan equation. This is a dispute that has never threatened to become a military flashpoint requiring a strong Japanese military response to deter China.

Why then Japan is militarising is a critical question that must be explained with reference to the ability of the US to shape Japan’s foreign and military policies. The source is both direct and direct. As far as, the direct source is concerned, the US has been a hegemon for Japan since the Second World War. Indirectly, by creating tensions with China around Taiwan, the US is creating a major security issue in the region. Regional countries are, therefore, feeling – and responding to – the geopolitical pressure.

Similar is the case with Russia. Russia’s special military operations are a response to NATO’s expansionist policy. This is now very well recognised in Europe as well, where the French leader has already called for taking into account Russian security interests to bring the Ukraine crisis to a negotiated end. A conflict involving NATO has nothing to do with Japan, at least directly. But it was the US that brought NATO to the Pacific region when it held an emergency NATO and G7 summit in Bali, following a missile strike in Poland, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia.

With NATO becoming active in a region far beyond its jurisdiction, the intent to make the conflict in Europe global becomes clear, which also explains the key factors driving Japan’s current militarization, a process that has a much more visible US footprint than Japan’s own.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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