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Japan’s Expanded Role in Regional Security: China’s Challenge

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Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on December 28, agreeing to set up a military hotline next year, the Japanese government spokesman said last week. According to Reuters, the Japanese defense chief stressed the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Japan released its annual Defense White Paper in July 2021, marked by much greater strategic clarity on its regional role than in the past. The document includes detailed assessments of the country’s strategic situation and challenges, as well as the means to address them. Three points should be emphasized regarding the document and its wider context.

First, following previous iterations, the document emphasizes that alongside the alliance with the United States, continued cooperation among stakeholders in the wider Pacific is needed to make the region prosperous and developed. Cooperation is essential given the intense competition between the United States and China.

Second, the document is accompanied by a much more assertive, sometimes assertive, set of statements about the country’s security position vis-à-vis China. It was initiated by the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Third, the most significant change from previous articles is a much more explicit stance of support for Taiwan in the face of its Chinese opponent.

What is behind these developments?

While North Korea and Russia continue to be security challenges for Japan, the most crucial issues relate to China as a security threat and trading partner. China’s importance as a security threat has emerged simultaneously with heightened caution, and sometimes suspicion, about the United States’ genuine engagement with Japan and Asia in general.

This distrust, of course, does not mean changing the terms of the US-Japan alliance. On the contrary, the new pledge of trillion yen for the US bases (over five years) and the support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) group of countries (US, Japan, Australia and India) testify to the Japan’s commitment to the United States. . But there are calls in Tokyo to be aware of America’s introverted orientation, political polarization, and weariness about participating in international conflicts.

Japan’s growing role in regional security is best understood as a reaction to the shift in the military balance in favor of China. China’s continued militarization has been accompanied by regular incursions into and along the sea and air spaces of Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Chinese leaders say these measures protect their national interests. Part of this militarization is the construction of military bases on islands in disputed sea areas and the unilateral creation of an air defense identification zone over the disputed East China Sea.

China has also tested Japan’s readiness through incursions into neighboring air and sea corridors and the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu island area. In 2020, a record number of such incursions took place.

In the face of Chinese stocks, Japanese leaders have broken with the past and taken a much more assertive stance. For example, statements from senior Japanese leaders, including then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his deputy Taro Aso, call China a potential security threat. Additionally, Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe explicitly stated that “an emergency in Taiwan is a Japanese emergency.”

Abe has played a central role in reorienting Japan’s strategic priorities and policies by persuading like-minded countries to form a united response to Beijing’s assertive positions. Earlier this month, Abe said an attack on U.S. ships in the Taiwan arena would trigger the alliance’s collective security clause and could lead Japan to participate in hostilities.

The last decade has witnessed an effervescence of activity in security and military institutions: the creation of a national security council and the formulation of a national security strategy, the recognition of participation in collective defense and new laws governing the Japanese armed forces, as well as strengthening the coast guard, navy and air force. Japan also acquired new weapons, including ships and planes, submarines and anti-rocket systems, and converted a helicopter carrier into its first post-war aircraft carrier. In addition, senior politicians began to publicly debate the need for missiles designed for preemptive strikes against enemy bases.

No less important, Japan regularly cultivates bilateral security ties (including regular dialogue and joint exercises) with many Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Following the publication of the White Paper, Kishida’s new government decided to approve an unprecedented additional defense budget of $ 6.8 billion, increasing the defense budget by a further 13%, which will now represent 1.3 billion dollars. % of Japan’s GDP.

These military developments are a continuation of the previous policy according to which diplomatic and economic means were implemented to face Chinese threats. With this in mind, Japanese leaders and the media began to discuss national security issues and those related to the economy. A new economic unit has been added to the National Security Council.

Along with security dialogue among the countries of Southeast Asia, assistance with equipment and training of local coast guards, and joint military exercises, Japan has also implemented policies encouraging cooperation. economic and investment. This policy created the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity for the Pacific from north to south. This policy emphasizes values ​​such as freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights, the rule of law and the market economy as crucial elements to be promoted throughout the Pacific .

This regional policy is expressed in programs such as the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, which consists of investing $ 110 billion in the development of local industries, investments in infrastructure, the environment and food security. Its broader objective is to create an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative by combining public and private investment.

In addition, China is seeking to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was amended and renamed after the United States left the Free Trade Agreement (formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

However, the most critical change in current security policy concerns Taiwan. For example, Japan’s top leaders have always made strong public statements of support for Taiwan’s continued existence as a democratic country and for maintaining the Taiwan Strait as an open corridor. Among the most notable of these leaders were Kishi, who spoke directly to the importance of Taiwanese peace and stability to Japan, and Aso, who stressed that his country was ready to join US forces in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

More recently, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has once again echoed this firm position. In addition, Japan’s appeal to Taiwan to join the World Health Organization has expressed this change more forcefully. Separately, Japan has also donated coronavirus vaccines to Taiwan, which has had difficulty obtaining them due to international pressure from China. In addition, there is an open dialogue between the Liberal Democratic Party and the ruling party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party.

In conclusion, the constant strengthening by Japan of its substantial military power is based on a realistic vision of the security challenges the country is currently facing, and in particular those presented by China.

In addition, the Japanese general public has gradually accepted this realistic view instead of the pacifist view that prevailed in the past.

Professor Eyal Ben-Ari received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and was a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He specializes in security in East Asia, the Israel Defense Forces, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and issues related to the armed forces of democracies. He has published over 25 books (written and edited), mainly on the armed forces but also on early childhood education, local communities in Japan and popular culture in East Asia.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.