Japan ramps up efforts to remilitarize, integrate with US to deter China

Posted on : 2024-04-15 16:08 KST Modified on : 2024-04-15 16:08 KST
The groundwork has been laid for Japan to serve as a linchpin and vanguard in the US strategy of containing China
US President Joe Biden toasts to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan during the state dinner for the latter at the White House on April 10, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden toasts to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan during the state dinner for the latter at the White House on April 10, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)

The agreement reached by the US and Japan to increase military cooperation to an unprecedented degree in their summit on Wednesday is likely to empower Japan to become a military power. Tokyo’s push to fundamentally change its military status and postwar relationship with Washington is expected to have a substantial impact on the security arrangement in East Asia.

This summit shows that Japan has reached the final stage in its long campaign to become a “normal state” and “a state that can go to war.” Despite Japan’s pacifist constitution, which forbids it from maintaining military forces and denies the right of belligerency, Tokyo updated its national security strategy in December 2022 to allow “counterstrike capability,” or the ability to strike enemy bases. Tokyo announced in the same document that it intends to increase defense spending from the current cap of 1% of GDP to 2% over the next five years.

US President Joe Biden later gave his blessing to Japan’s actions, telling Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a meeting in Washington the next month that he welcomed Japan’s new national security strategy and its historical increase in defense spending. Biden said in his latest meeting with Kishida that he intends to actively help Japan bolster its counterstrike ability while upgrading the US’ relationship with Japan to a “truly global partnership.”

The US stationed large numbers of troops in Japan after World War II, nominally to defend Japan from the Soviet Union but also to keep Japan under control. While South Korean and American soldiers are integrated into a combined defense arrangement, US Forces Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces have separate chains of command.

But now the US and Japan have not only announced plans to collaborate on the development and production of weapons systems and to reorganize their military arrangements to improve combined operational abilities, but the US has also pledged to provide material and technical support so that Japan can develop counterstrike capability.

These dramatic changes are grounded in a commitment to the joint containment of China. In its latest national security strategy, Japan defined China as the “greatest strategic challenge,” just as the US has. In their joint statement, Washington and Tokyo promised to oppose attempts by China “to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion in the East China Sea” and China’s “destabilizing actions in the South China Sea.”

Kishida said in a joint press conference that he and Biden had “agreed that our two countries will continue to respond to challenges concerning China through close coordination.”

The Japanese prime minister also said in a recent press interview that the growing threat posed by North Korea and Russia was another reason for Japan’s changing security strategy.

The US and Japan’s increasing military cooperation can also be regarded as the result of three intersecting factors: Japan’s declining power, US efforts to force its allies to take on a greater share of the defense burden (an isolationist move best exemplified by Donald Trump), and Japan’s campaign to use the security threat as an excuse to shake off the stigma of its past war crimes.

Japan’s effort to assume a larger role in the US-led security order is not only evident in their bilateral relationship. On Thursday, Kishida and Biden met with Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. for the first summit between the three countries. The three leaders’ agenda included countering China by stepping up joint naval patrols in the South China Sea. Their trilateral summit was similar in structure and rationale to the South Korea-US-Japan summit that was held in August 2023.

Japan is already part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — a deliberative body arranged against China — along with the US, India and Australia. And now there is talk about Japan playing a secondary role in the AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US. In effect, Japan appears in each group the US has established for the containment of China.

Japan has already been participating in military activities aimed at checking China, such as joint naval and air exercises with the US, the Philippines and Australia on April 7 that were held in the South China Sea, very far from Japanese territory.

In effect, the groundwork has been laid for Japan to serve as a linchpin and vanguard in the US strategy of containing China while also emerging as a military power that has slipped the reins of its so-called pacifist constitution.

Biden praised Japan for taking on a stronger role, declaring that the “US-Japan alliance is a beacon to the entire world” and “a cornerstone of peace, security, prosperity [. . .] around the world.” Kishida for his part promised that Japan would always work closely with the US.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

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