In the past year, the Japanese government has found itself entangled between the lessons of its history and geography. In a faint but symbolic manner, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan’s government has made historic steps in transforming its defence capabilities. However, while Japan has resisted military upscaling, the time has come when the possibility of regional warfare has forced Japanese attitudes to change.
Japan’s resistance to military expansion was ascertained in the post-war period of 1945. The notorious Hiroshima bomb that the Americans dropped on Japan brought about the collapse of the Japanese-supported Nazi regime. This left cultural scares in the memory of the Japanese. Two years later, the government ratified article 9 in the newly written constitution, which strictly limited the use of military defence.
Generally, the Japanese have remained restrained in adapting culturally or politically, with the history of Japan remaining at the forefront of policy and politics. However, while the country has seen modern transformation economically, it has sustained the conservative dislike for military expansion.
Political appetite for a more robust military had conflicted modern politicians with the growing concern for self-defence. The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who represented the Liberal Democrats of Japan, believed that if Japan wanted to play a more prominent role on the world stage, then it had to expand its defence capabilities. But Abe was met with strong resistance from the Japanese people.
Western observers speculate that China may be next to strike against Taiwan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, public desire for defence has surged. Although China has not proclaimed such an attack, international security experts are looking closely at China’s possible attack on Japan’s traditionalism is challenged by geographical instability.
Geographically, Japan is a northwest Pacific Island with a sea border with South Korea, North Korea, and China. Sitting only 3,136 km away, Japan and China have concerns about the future of the political climate in their region. However, it is a tightrope to walk, for Japan is its greatest threat and closest trading partner. Therefore, China and Japan have something to gain or lose in their fragile relations.
In the last 100 years, both nations have appeared to be seen as the ‘upcoming’ great power’ while China is more recently on that trajectory. In the 20th century we witnessed political speculation about the rise of Japan. Both possess significant regional influence, divided among different countries. Japan’s allies reach western democracies such as US, UK, and EU. In contrast, China’s most powerful allies are ‘outlaws’ in the liberal world order. These countries include Russia, Iran, and India, to name a few. China and Japan’s allies are split among global fragmentations.
The rapid shifts in attitudes have surprised defence observers. In recent months, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has steamed ahead with plans to bolster further Japanese defence with solid support from the Japanese public. One poll showed that 64% believe in strengthening the military, while another showed that 72% want a stronger army. These shifts have allowed Kishida to do what Japanese leaders have wanted since the start of the 21st century.
The greatest transformation since the establishment of Article 9 happened at the end of 2022. Japan announced doubling its military spending from 1% of GDP to 2% in 2028. A 1% increase may not seem much for many countries, but it is huge for the third wealthiest country in the world (measured by GDP per capita). In the next five years, Japanese military spending will increase by $326b, representing a monumental geopolitical shift.
At the end of 2022, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida released three new strategic documents: a new National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Plan. These documents tackle the 3 D’s of international relations: defence, deterrence and diplomacy. All three plans have turbocharged the Japanese position worldwide and have signalled a new era in Japanese security.
However, support for military expansion has not been universal across Japan. A recent survey revealed that 65% of the population did not support increased taxes to support military capabilities. However, this may be an indication of reluctance to raise taxes as opposed to solid resistance. Despite this, the Japanese government has pressed on with its plans on a global scale.
Japan has made three signals to the world
Firstly, the defence upscaling in Japan, although no match for China, will symbolise geopolitical strength. Japan is attempting to stand taller among big players in Asia, which includes China and India. Thus, Japan offers a powerful alternative to China for smaller nations looking for global alliances in the region. Secondly, it signals trepidation. Japan no longer have faith in guaranteed regional harmony. While there is no immediate danger, there is an increasing prospect of global confrontation. Thirdly, Western allies, particularly the US, with their inconsistent foreign policy partly linked to the Trump era, have indicated that Japan cannot rely on its allies as it did in the late 20th and early 21st century.
What does this mean for regional security?
Many Western countries concerned with China’s rise, including the US, have welcomed the Japanese response. For the US, increases in global alliances support the Western-built coalition in the face of growing alternative power structures – mainly affiliated with China and Russia. The US and Japan have agreed to ramp up military cooperation with a series of planning and training. Strengthening bilateral relations was announced earlier this year with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin following the Japanese Defence Minister’s visit to the Pentagon.
Furthermore, the UK Prime minister, Rishi Sunak and Kishida’s government have signed the most significant defence deal in over a century. The deal will allow Japan and the UK to deploy defence in both nations and introduce an indo-pacific security pact with future joint military exercises. Sunak said, “in the past 12 months, we have written the next chapter of the relationship between the UK and Japan – accelerating, building and deepening our ties.” Sunak’s ambition to increase military relations underpins what Japan aims to do: build bilateral support.
What can we take from this?
The key takeaway is that Japan does not want to match China, nor would it be able to. But this is a tactic of intimidation. Japan aims to prove it can protect itself by increasing military defence and ties. There are no signs of war with its greatest financial partner. Nor would it be prepared for outright warfare.
This shift is more nuanced. Japan has closed the chapter of its post-World War II diplomacy. It stands with the West in perceived regional and global aggression. It has entered a new dawn in its security.