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Opinion | A menacing Russia and China are tearing Japan from its past

Opinion | A menacing Russia and China are tearing Japan from its past

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Much is needed to overcome Japan’s post-1945 posture of reserve and reticence in military matters. But China and Russia have accomplished just that—convincing Japanese leaders that they need “counter-strike” capabilities to defend against growing threats.

Japan’s new hawkish stance will be on display Friday at a White House meeting between visiting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Biden. The Japanese leader will explain his decision in November to seek parliamentary approval to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product annually on defense, roughly doubling what Japan spends.

“This is an inflection point” for Asia, said Kurt Campbell, who oversees regional policy for Biden’s National Security Council. He moved Japan from reliance on its own soft power and American weapons to a true military partnership. And it redraws the security map, creating a NATO-like alliance for deterrence in the Indo-Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

Why is Japan taking this step toward remilitarization? One exciting moment for Japanese leaders, US officials said, was when China and Russia flew six heavy bombers near Japan in a joint exercise on May 24 while Tokyo hosted a meeting of the Quad partnership of Australia, India, Japan and United States.

Japan expressed “serious concerns” regarding flights. But China and Russia did it again in late November, sending two Chinese heavy bombers and two Russian jets over the Sea of ​​Japan. This time, Tokyo expressed “serious concerns”, again with no apparent response.

Another wake-up call came in August, when China fired five missiles into Japan’s “exclusive economic zone” during a spasm of military exercises after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan. “We protested strongly through diplomatic channels,” said Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s former defense minister who now serves as a special adviser to the prime minister. The lesson was that “nothing in the Taiwan Strait stays in the Taiwan Strait,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Tokyo, told me in an interview.

Over the past year, Japan has moved from talk to action. A big reason is the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coming less than a month after Russia and China announced a “no-holds-barred” partnership. “The world has changed dramatically and the Japanese know it,” Emanuel said.

Kishida, although a new and politically weak prime minister, took aggressive action in support of Ukraine. Japan quickly sent military and humanitarian aid and in March successfully lobbied eight of the 10 ASEAN countries to support a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

“Kishida understood early on that the Russian attack on Ukraine represented a blending of the Indo-Pacific and European worlds. He saw a fundamental challenge to the world order,” says Campbell. So instead of taking the usual approach of relying on the United States to fix things, he explains, Kishida “decided to make common cause with Europe.”

At the heart of Japan’s security problem are missiles, and not just from China; North Korea regularly tests ballistic missiles that fly over Japan. A decade ago, Japan invested heavily in anti-missile technology, hoping it would blunt the threat. But a few years ago, Japanese military planners realized that an adversary could overcome their anti-missile shield. They needed something more.

A counter-strike strategy should offer this. The United States will provide Japan 400 to 500 Tomahawk missiles which can hit missile sites in China or North Korea. Japan also wants to protect its space-based defenses, which include satellite-guided bombs and a Japanese version of the US global positioning system, from China’s expanding anti-satellite arsenal. So the Biden administration will expand the long-standing US security treaty with Japan to cover attacks in space.

Japan’s new bellicosity will inevitably provoke a backlash in China, where there is a deep antipathy to Japanese military power dating back to the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and early 1940s. If in doubt, just visit the Nanjing Museum, which documents Japan’s brutal assault on the city in 1937. Japan has scorned power projection since its defeat in 1945, partly out of respect for such historical memories.

Japan is still a profoundly peaceful country. But the weight of the past is receding, and younger Japanese want a stronger military to deal with bellicose neighbors. A survey last summer by Jiji Press found that 75 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 supported increased defense spending, and more than 60 percent of that age group favored Japan’s “counter-strike capabilities.”

China is in the early stages of what may be the largest military buildup in history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine effectively ended the post-Cold War era. Japan reacted rationally to this development. But beware: as the global order crumbles, the chain of action and reaction is just beginning.


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