China’s unchecked expansionism and belligerence, coupled with the shocking optics of US troops abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban, and leaving the hapless Ukrainians to virtually fend for themselves against the Russian onslaught, is giving Japan sleepless nights. The perceived tenability of the historical US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, signed following the end of World War 2, is becoming increasingly suspect. Through this treaty, the United States had pledged to defend the sovereign integrity of Japan, in exchange for a pacifist constitution that required Japan to eschew arming itself militarily. Pursuant to this treaty, the United States has over eighty Military sites in Japan harbouring over sixty thousand US troops (largest in any other country). Recent unease with the cost sharing formula (with previous US President Donald Trump going embarrassingly public over accusations of Japan short paying) and the overall unease over the presence of US troops has dampened the credibility of the existing arrangement.
Even the schizophrenic ‘Bromance’ between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, without really accounting for the vulnerabilities imagined in Japan, had led to a sense of being disregarded in Japan. Sensitivity in Japan can be gauged by the fact that Japan was amongst the first and most decisive nations to act against Russia, following the invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy had hailed Japan as the ‘first Asian nation that has begun exerting pressure on Russia’, after it froze assets of Russia’s central bank, banned export of high-end technology and revoked Russia’s trade status as a ‘Favoured Nation’. Clearly, Japan shed all pretenses of neutrality. The late Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, had initiated the first meaningful questioning of the contentious Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which had imposed pacifist restraints in its policies.
Abe ushered ‘collective selfdefense’ wherein the Japanese Self-Defense Forces could legitimately intervene in a hypothetical attack of a US warship, allowed mine clearance missions in the Middle East, to even opening of a first full-scale overseas military base in distant Djibouti, indicating the re-assertion of the Japanese military footprint. Even the much bandied and speculated construct of Quad (Quadrilateral agreement between the ‘Sino-wary’ nations of United States, India, Australia and Japan) can be principally attributed to Shinzo Abe and his revisionist thinking. It also reflected the strategic necessity of collective action, as opposed to solely banking on the diminishing power of the United States to guarantee security. Signs of Japanese warships engaged in joint training, exercises, and interoperability operations with ‘friendly’ nations, increased.
The constitutionally mandated threshold of 1 per cent of the Japanese GDP dedicated towards the Defence Budget is increasingly under pressure and calls to raise the same to 2 per cent, in line with the Nato countries, is growing. Hitherto unheard concepts like a potential Japanese ‘counterstrike capability’, as the threats from China or even a recalcitrant North Korea loom, has led to thinking beyond the existing Patriot and Aegis intercepting missile defense systems, as the Japanese want to posture a hard ‘price to pay’, onto anyone targeting it. Currently, with America’s reliability as an effective and capable ally to safeguard Japan under a cloud, a sense of defenselessness against a Chinese or North Korean barrage of missiles is feared. The practical reality and benefits of easing restrictions on the Japanese militaristic preparedness are not lost on Washington DC, either. Already, work on joint ballistic-missile technology between the US and Japan has led to the latter being designated as the ‘strongest missile defense partner’. Importantly, both the countries agreed to recognise maintaining stability over Taiwan Straits, as an imperative towards Japan’s own security ~ hence, suggesting ‘close cooperation’ between Washington DC and Tokyo, in an eventuality of China attacking Taiwan.
Today, the Joe Biden administration has reiterated the position taken by the earlier Trump and Obama administrations of bringing the Japanese Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu Islands as called in China (a perennial flashpoint between Japan and China) to be brought under the cover of Article 5 of the Bilateral Security Treaty, that automatically affords US military intervention, should China use force. Pushing the agenda of rearming Japan is its newly designated ‘Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency’ with the Defense Ministry which has announced the development of its own hypersonic systems i.e., Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM) and the Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP), that could be game changers in the future.
From a revised policy perspective, Tokyo announced its intent to allow export of its advanced technology and weaponry to a select 12 countries (including India), which the government said unabashedly was to, ‘enhance deterrence against China by cooperating with countries that have signed individual security agreements with Tokyo’. Now, Japan’s current conventional military might surpass Britain, Germany, or Italy (though the nuclear weapon still remains a no-no), and it has bought 147 fifth generation F-35 fighter planes (making it the largest user outside of the United States, something often denied to even Nato members). Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who succeeded late Shinzo Abe is walking in the footsteps of his predecessor in terms of security outlook and has promised considering ‘all options’ to ‘increase Japan’s defense power’. Last year, despite the pandemic related slowdown, the defense spending went up by an impressive 15 per cent, from the previous year.
Last week, Japan issued its annual Defense White Paper, where it named and shamed China as a direct threat, mentioning it 51 times in the 28-page report, directly. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted almost immediately stating that it was tantamount to, ‘vilifying China’s national defense policy, normal military development and legitimate maritime activities, hyping up the so-called China threats and interfering in China’s internal affairs on the Taiwan question’, and that indeed was the substance of Japanese assertions. With more than two-thirds of Japanese lawmakers supporting the reneging of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, it is only a question of time before even that formality is done away with. This aggressive Japanese stance augurs well for India as it counters China’s moves in the region, which as Beijing’s unofficial mouthpiece, Global Times, noted was full of ‘obvious, straightforward, aggressive and condemnatory references against China’, something even India hasn’t mustered the courage to use explicitly.