The threat from China: Japan’s role in global security

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis
Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

In the past 50 years, three Japanese presidents—Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982–87), Koizumi Junichiro (2001–06), and Abe Shinzo—have emerged as independent world leaders (from 2006-07 and 2012-20). History will consider Abe to be the most significant of these. He changed Japan’s post-war political identity, participation in international affairs and strategic objectives. There is no better example of this than Abe’s response to the rise of China, whose challenge arguably became the organising principle of his prime ministership.

Under Abe’s leadership, Japan amended its constitution in 2015, marking the first time that its military may defend friends, albeit in limited circumstances. Abe was able to push through legislation that allowed Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside allies overseas. He also tried repeatedly but with little success to revise Article 9 of the pacifist Japanese constitution, which stifles the Japanese military.

With the expansion of their military cooperation and a renewed emphasis on modern threats, such as those posed by China and North Korea, as well as emerging technology, the United States and Japan were able to rethink their defence policies once more thanks in part to these changes.

Japan’s relations with ASEAN nations have continued to improve. A recent survey found that 84 per cent of respondents from ASEAN countries thought highly of Japan as a partner while only 42 per cent of ASEAN countries rated the United States favourably, including Indonesia.

Forged in the Wake of World War II

For more than 60 years, the US-Japan alliance has been the foundation for stability, prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. The alliance has grown from a security-oriented pact with a focus on mutual defence to a partnership that encompasses cooperation on a multitude of issues. This new emphasis has put a premium on aligning the US and Japanese policy responses to China’s rise.

It was reported at the beginning of the year that the U.S. and Japan were set to sign a new five-year pact for Japan to support US military forces in the country and a new agreement to research and develop new defence technologies.

Under the terms of the hosting deal, which will run to 2026, Japan will spend approximately $1.82 billion annually to support the U.S. military presence. The United States has about 55,000 troops in Japan, including a naval contingent, which makes it the largest forward-deployed U.S. force in the world, according to the GAO.

Apart from cementing those terms, the US and Japan are hoping to increase cooperation and coordination in combatting China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region as well as explore ways to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program.

The US and Japan are increasingly worried about threats from North Korea, which has conducted at least 16 missile tests so far this year.

Trump refused to exempt Japan from US steel and aluminium tariffs when he recklessly sparked a trade war with China, damaging the country’s reputation as a trusted partner and costing millions of dollars in lost revenue.

The Chinese Dragon

China’s rapid development has been a major concern for the alliance ever since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, during which the United States dispatched aircraft carriers to the area in response to Chinese missile tests.

China surpassed Japan in 2010 to become the second-largest economy in the world, and concerns about its global aspirations have been raised due to its expanding defence expenditure and military modernisation.

A long-running territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a collection of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, is at the root of hostilities between China and Japan.

In order to prevent Tokyo’s then right-wing populist Governor Shintaro Ishihara from acquiring and developing three of the disputed islands and to avoid provoking China, Japan purchased the three islands in question from a Japanese businessman in 2012. The purchase provoked bloody anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, which hurt a number of well-known Japanese firms.

Beijing viewed Japan’s “nationalization” of the islands as a significant provocation and a unilateral change to the status quo, necessitating China to create its own new status quo if it wanted to avoid being assumed to have consented to Japan’s display of sovereignty.

Beijing took swift action by announcing territorial maritime baselines around the disputed islands, transferring administrative sovereignty from Japan to China in accordance with national law.

Since then, China has considered the arrival of Japan Self-Defense Forces and other Japanese government boats into the region to be an infringement of its sovereignty and a trespass into its territory.

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