Japan emerges from U.S. shadow as Chinese threat grows

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he has imposed sanctions on Moscow, agreed to seek a nuclear-free world with the Pope, and toured Southeast Asia and Europe diplomatically to rally world leaders to to protect democracy.

But it’s not just democracy in Ukraine that he’s trying to protect – Kishida sees parallels between Russia’s actions in Europe and China’s expansion into the Indo-Pacific, a region that stretches from the US Pacific Coast to the Indian Ocean.

“We strongly oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force anywhere,” Kishida said, in a joint statement with European Union leaders in May. The same statement included a clause expressing “serious concern over reports of militarization, coercion and intimidation in the South China Sea”, although it did not name China as the aggressor.

Japan’s location places it in an increasingly unstable security environment – ​​flanked by China to the south, nuclear-armed North Korea to the west and Russia to the north. As a result, the war in Ukraine has catalyzed debates over Japan’s national security like never before.

In April, members of the country’s ruling party presented a proposal to increase the country’s defense budget from 1% to 2% – in line with NATO members – and developing “counterattack capabilities” – a move that heralds big changes for Japan’s longstanding pacifist security posture.

But Tokyo isn’t just investing in its defense, it’s using diplomacy to strengthen relations in the region and beyond. Ahead of Kishida’s meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday, experts say the world’s third-largest economy is reassessing its approach to deterrence and presenting itself as a reliable partner on the world stage.

A Japanese invention

Japan floated its idea of ​​an “arch of freedom and prosperity” that would stretch across the Indo-Pacific and draw in the United States and Australia more than a decade ago.

In 2007, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Indian lawmakers that a “wider Asia” was beginning to form and implored Delhi to work alongside Tokyo “to nourish and enrich these seas”. It was the start of what would become the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic alliance between the United States, Australia, India and Japan.

Abe’s attempts to unite Pacific allies came as China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Soon after, Beijing was promoting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to develop new trade routes linking China to the world.

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China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the 1.3 million square kilometers of the South China Sea and has turned several reefs and sandbars – far from its coastline – into man-made man-made islands heavily fortified with missiles, tracks and weapon systems.

Observers feared that China’s expansion could eventually allow Beijing to control the South China Sea waterways, threatening the free flow of trade. So in 2016, Abe improved his idea and introduced the concept of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).”

Under FOIP, like-minded countries and organizations across Southeast Asia and Africa would protect the Indo-Pacific and the trillions of dollars worth of goods that pass through it every year.

Cleo Paskal, Indo-Pacific strategist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said countries were initially slow to adapt to JTFP. “A lot of people didn’t even think FOIP was a problem because they thought the seas would be open and people would be free,” she said. “But now we realize that those two things of being free and open are actually under threat.”

China’s expansion in the region is expected to be one of the main talking points when Quad leaders meet in Tokyo on Tuesday, following Kishida’s bilateral with Biden.

President Joe Biden gestures as he boards Air Force One for a trip to South Korea and Japan, May 19, 2022.

Forging a Stronger American Security Pact

Japan’s efforts to unite its democratic allies bore fruit when the United States adopted FOIP in 2017, giving the concept more weight as well as new resources, programs and partnerships.

But now analysts say the United States expects Japan to take a stronger leadership role in the region, and Tokyo knows that means it must strengthen its defenses.

“Japan recognizes that relying solely on the United States would not really maintain political trust between the two sides,” said Ken Jimbo, a national security expert and professor at Keio University.

Last December, Kishida announced that the government was exploring options to give Japan the ability to strike enemy bases. Since then, calls have intensified within Japan’s ruling party to develop “counterattack capabilities” in coordination with the United States. The move would push the boundaries of the country’s pacifist constitution, but expand Tokyo’s ability to retaliate against mobile and submarine-launched attacks.

“Japan wants to be able to defend itself in a fight. The country has a very strong part of the population that does not want to depend on outside powers in order to be able to make decisions that may or may not risk its sovereignty,” Paskal said.

However, there is resistance within the country to any departure from Japan’s pacifist stance.

“Popular public opinion still views Japan as a pacifist country that should not have the ability to attack others, it should only have sufficient means to defend itself,” said James Brown, an international relations expert at the International Relations Office. ‘Temple University.

“So that concern has caused the government to move more slowly on this.”

However, the war in Ukraine seems to be changing mentalities. A recent poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun and the University of Tokyo showed that 64% of 3,000 people polled were in favor of boosting Japan’s defensive capabilities, the highest percentage since the survey began in 2003.

Managing China’s Influence

China’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine has bolstered Kishida’s mission to protect the integrity of the Indo-Pacific. Not only is he reaching out to larger allies in the United States and Europe, but he is engaging in diplomacy closer to home to make it clear that Japan is a partner to be counted on in uncertain times. .

In March, a Japanese delegation visited the Solomon Islands after China and Honiara signed a security pact that some say could eventually see a Chinese military base in the Pacific. Paskal, the Indo-Pacific analyst, said the diplomatic trip highlights Tokyo’s interest in positioning itself as an alternative security provider.

Japan also wants to offer an alternative to China by presenting its own quality infrastructure projects, which use local labor, have high quality controls and do not leave an unsustainable debt burden in the countries. participants, said Thomas Wilkins, senior research fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Tokyo’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

In a video call with his Japanese counterpart on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that even before Biden arrived in Asia, the perception that Japan and the United States were united against China “was already endemic” and had created “a nauseating atmosphere”. according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Japan’s forceful response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the hallmark of a country trying to strengthen democratic ties in its own region.

When Quad members meet in Tokyo on Tuesday, they will seek to present a united front that matches Japan’s original vision of “the arc of freedom and prosperity.”

Paskal said in this regard that Japan’s leadership in the region was “respected and appreciated”.

“Much remains to be done, but it is changing in a way that many Japan watchers perhaps did not expect even five years ago,” she said.

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