September 2023

Pacifism hangs in the balance

As Japan invests massively in fortifying its defence capability, Amit Agnihotri examines what lies behind this pacifist nation’s drive to militarise

In an interesting geopolitical development, Japan, a pacifist nation and member of Quad, is undertaking a major defence upgrade, citing threats from China, Russia and North Korea – an ally of the Asian Dragon.

The US, which leads the Quad, has also been trying to grapple with the China-Russia strategic convergence that emerged after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022 – a situation that is perceived as a threat to Washington’s global dominance.

In order to weaken Russia, the US is therefore extending full military support to Ukraine while also countering China through regional alliances such as the four-member Quad, the three-nation AUKUS and via trade restrictions.

In the decades following World War II, the US protected Japan from external threats but the pacifist nation is now determined to acquire military muscles of its own.

A recent defence white paper by Tokyo flagged up that Japan is facing the most serious and complex security environment since the end of World War II and noted that the activities of China, Russia and North Korea are contributing to the threat.

According to the document, China’s current foreign policy, military activities, and other actions have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community and presents an unprecedented strategic challenge to which Tokyo must respond with its comprehensive national power in cooperation with like-minded countries.

Quad members with national flags in the background
The Quad is a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific

In truth, Japan fears that China may be in possession of 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 – the Asian Dragon is proceeding rapidly with the construction of its second Chinese-built aircraft carrier equipped with electro-magnetic catapult systems and is also developing a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Armed with this military capability, the pacifist nation feels that China has been intensifying its activities across the entire region, including in the East China Sea (particularly the areas around the Senkaku Islands), the Sea of Japan, and the western Pacific Ocean – including areas around the Izu and Ogasawara Island – extending beyond the so-called first island chain to the second island chain.

Japan is facing the most serious and complex security environment since the end of World War II

The Quad member is also aggrieved that as part of the Taiwan situation, China launched 9 ballistic missiles on August 4, 2022, of which five landed within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone – a threat to local residents.

Japan is also concerned that Russia is both striving to deepen its alliance with China by increasing joint exercises and seeking to modernise various types of equipment (including its nuclear capability) and reinforcing its armaments by deploying new types of equipment in Japan’s Northern Territories and the Christmas Islands.

In fact, China and Russia conducted their latest joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan in July and have conducted at least five such exercises in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea over the past year – actions seen as aggressive posturing by the US and its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea.

But the US, Japan and South Korea are flexing their muscles too and conducted joint naval exercises in July in the international waters between South Korea and Japan, days after China’s ally, North Korea, launched Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.

Members of the Quad consist of the US, India, Japan and Australia. Aiming to counter China’s expansionism in the strategic Indo-Pacific region, they conducted their joint naval drill, called the Malabar Exercise, off the Australian coast in August in an attempt to send a strong message to the Asian Dragon.

The new defence policy marks a turning point in the history of the pacifist nation

Indeed, Japan, which has been urging the international community not to tolerate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has highlighted the fact that Moscow violated its tiny neighbour because Kyiv lacked sufficient military deterrence. By citing the example of Ukraine, Japan is expressing its fear that Tokyo, too, might be drawn into a military conflict should China decide to invade Taiwan.

If that happens, Japan is concerned that it will become an obvious operational base for US forces, which have been stationed in the Okinawa Island close to Taiwan, and may incur China’s wrath in the process.

Japan believes that if Russian aggression in Ukraine is overlooked, it could signal that unilateral changes to the status quo by force, is acceptable in other regions as well, including Asia. Indeed, the Quad member feels that Russia’s deepening cooperation with China may lead to strategic competition between the United States and the Asian Dragon.

As expected, China defends its military policy by saying that joint sea patrols with relevant countries are in line with international law and practices and accuses Japan of interfering in its internal affairs by playing up the so-called Beijing threat.

Japan’s defence white paper also mentions that North Korea’s military activities pose an even graver and more imminent threat to its national security than ever before and that China’s ally has the ability to attack the Quad member with nuclear weapons fitted to ballistic missiles  –  North Korea has test-fired around 100 missiles since the start of 2022, including the ICBMs.

In light of these threats, Japan feels that it is essential to defend its country and plans to double its defence budget to 43 trillion yen ($310 billion) by 2027.

In line with the twin priorities identified by Japan, the Quad member will first maximize the effective use of its current equipment by improving operational rates, securing sufficient munitions and accelerating investments in improving the resilience of major defence facilities.

US troops stationed in Japan
Protected by the US since 1951, Japan now seeks to acquire military muscles of its own

Next, Japan will strengthen the core areas of its future defence capabilities, including stand-off defence capabilities that can beutilized as counter strike capabilities and unmanned assets.

Japan has drawn up an ambitious plan to upgrade its defence but needs to deal with some operational challenges such as insufficient trained personnel or platforms to support an overhaul in the security structure.

As the new defence policy marks a turning point in the history of this pacifist nation, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seeks to convince domestic opposition and the public at large of the sudden shift and proposed massive defence expenditure.

Besides military hardware issues, such as shortage of ammunition and guided missiles, Japan also wants to strengthen its intelligence activities to win the modern-day information warfare and prevent a Chinese invasion.

Indeed, Japan, which has suffered cyber attacks – allegedly by China, has launched a Cyber Command, which monitors networks round the clock, and is planning to spend $7 billion over the next five years on cyber security alone.

The Quad member is also reorganising the command structure of its Maritime Self-Defence Force – likely to be operational by 2024, and is working towards more streamlined coordination with the US Indo-Pacific Command, in case of an emergency.

Meanwhile, the US, which shares military intelligence with Japan and South Korea separately, has suggested a mutual exchange of such information between its Asian allies.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues