Japan has for decades based its international clout on economic competitiveness, not military might. However, with China’s lengthening shadow darkening its doorstep, Japan now seems to be abandoning its pacifist post-World War II security policy — which capped defense spending at about 1 percent of GDP and shunned offensive capabilities — in favor of assuming a central role in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Last month, Japan unveiled a bold new national security strategy, which includes a plan to double defense expenditure within five years. That spending — amounting to about US$320 billion — is to fund Japan’s largest military buildup since the war and would be the world’s third-largest defense budget, after the US and China. Importantly, the new strategy includes acquisition of pre-emptive counterstrike capabilities, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US, and the development of its own hypersonic weapons.
Tokyo began laying the groundwork for this shift under former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July last year. On Abe’s watch, Japan increased defense spending by about 10 percent. More significantly, the Abe administration also reinterpreted the country’s US-imposed “peaceful constitution” to allow its military to mobilize overseas for the first time since the war, and gained legislative approval for the move. Abe also sought to amend Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces “the threat or use of force” by Japan, but his efforts were stymied by popular protests.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not run into the same resistance. On the contrary, opinion polls show that a majority of Japanese support the military buildup. A similar shift has taken place with regard to Kishida’s stance, as he was widely considered a dove when he was foreign minister — a label that he publicly embraced.
The impetus for this shift is clear. In 2013, the year Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took office, Japan’s national security strategy called China a strategic partner. By contrast, the updated strategy calls China “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan.”
China’s incremental, but unrelenting expansionism under Xi has rendered Japan’s pacifist stance untenable.
This is more apparent than ever in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has intensified fears that China could pursue a military option against Taiwan, which is effectively an extension of the Japanese archipelago.
Five of the nine missiles China fired during military exercises in the waters around Taiwan in August last year landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japan understandably views Taiwan’s security as vital for its own.
Japan is not the only once-conciliatory power to respond to Xi’s muscular revisionism with a newfound determination to bolster its defenses and forestall the emergence of a Sinocentric Indo-Pacific. Australia and India have embarked on the same path.
Moreover, a similar trend toward militarization has emerged among Japan’s Western allies. Germany, another pacifist country, has pledged to boost its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP (the same level Kishida is targeting) and accept a military leadership role in Europe. The UK has already surpassed the 2 percent of GDP level, yet it aims to double its defense spending by 2030. The US has just increased its mammoth military spending by 8 percent. Sweden and Finland are joining a reinvigorated NATO.
While Japan’s rearmament is more widely accepted than ever — and for good reason — it is unlikely to be enough to deter China’s expansionist creep. After all, despite having the world’s third-largest defense budget, India has been locked in a military standoff with China on the disputed Himalayan border since 2020, when stealthy encroachments by the Chinese military caught it by surprise. Clashes continue to erupt intermittently, including last month.
Unlike Russia, which launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine, China prefers salami slicing tactics, encroaching on other countries’ territories with a combination of stealth, deception and surprise. The Chinese military’s so-called “Three Warfares,” which focus on psychological, public opinion and legal aspects of conflict, has enabled Beijing to secure strategic victories in the South China Sea — from seizing the Johnson South Reef (Chigua Reef, 赤瓜礁) in 1988 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in 2012 — while barely firing a shot.
Because China generally avoids armed conflict, it incurs minimal international costs for its actions, even as it unilaterally redraws the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, or nibbles away at Bhutan’s borderlands, one pasture at a time. The Chinese government devastated Hong Kong’s autonomy without facing significant Western sanctions.
All this impunity has only emboldened Xi, who is seeking to replicate the South China Sea strategy in the East China Sea by escalating maritime and aerial incursions to bolster its claims to the Tokyo-administered Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — which Taiwan also claims. It has even tried to police the waters off those islands.
Japan’s response to China’s provocations has so far remained restrained, to say the least: No Japanese defense minister has so much as conducted an aerial inspection of the islands, lest it anger China.
Yet Japan’s embrace of Tomahawk missiles and hypersonic weapons does not necessarily represent an effective means of resisting China’s hybrid warfare, either. For that, Japan must find ways to frustrate China’s furtive efforts to alter the “status quo” while avoiding the risk of open combat.
Japan’s push to become more self-reliant on defense should be welcomed. Bolstered defense capabilities would lead to a more confident and secure Japan — and a more stable Indo-Pacific region.
However, if Japan is to “disrupt and defeat” threats, as the national security strategy puts it, Japanese leaders must seek to beat China at its own game.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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