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‘New’ Japan Impacting Asia’s Geopolitics

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‘NEW’ JAPAN IMPACTING ASIA’S GEOPOLITICS

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s address to the United States Congress earlier this month, and the developments from his summit meeting with President Joe Biden, announced the arrival of a new, assertive Japan to the world.

Japan is changing — and why this matters.

WHAT IS THE CHANGE THAT JAPAN IS UNDERGOING?

  • After World War II, a defeated and chastened Japan adopted a policy of pacifism — it avoided building significant armed capability, limited its defence expenditure, and refused to participate in military conflicts anywhere.
  • Japan’s pacifism was compensated by its bilateral military alliance with the United States. Japan was free to focus its energies on rebuilding its economy and becoming a commercial and technological powerhouse by the late 1960s.
  • By the turn of the 1970s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy.

THE CHANGE:

Today, Japan is set to become a major military power, transform its famed civilian industrial capability into a military industrial complex, and turn from being a US protectorate into an American partner and a significant contributor to Asian and Indo-Pacific security.

IS THIS THE FIRST TRANSITION FOR JAPAN?

NO.

In the mid 2000s, Japan began to articulate ideas for a new security architecture in Asia. Take for instance the concept of the Indo-Pacific, the single most important geopolitical idea of the 21st century.

The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first spoke about the strategic unity of the two oceans (Indian and Pacific) during his visit to India in 2007.

In the second transition unfolding today, Japan is matching its strategic ideas with military resources and the political will to actively reshape the regional security order.

WHY IS JAPAN CHANGING?

The US has long pressed Japan to take a more active security role in Asia. But Japan, comfortable with its commercial focus, has been unwilling.

A mix of external and internal factors have contributed to its reorientation in the 21st century.

EXTERNAL FACTORS

  • The rise of China and its military assertion, especially on the territorial disputes with Japan;
  • The deepening military bonds between Beijing and Moscow and the coordination of their policies in North East Asia;
  • The growing military capabilities of North Korea;
  • The fears triggered by the Trump Administration that the US could withdraw its security protection to Japan and other Asian allies.
INTERNAL FACTORS

Internally, this situation strengthened conservatives in Tokyo, who wanted to see Japan becoming a ‘normal power’.

They argued that Japan has done enough to prove its credentials as a responsible citizen of world affairs, and the time has come for it to take responsibility for its own security, and to contribute to the regional order.

 

WHAT IS JAPAN DOING EXACTLY?

  • Japan has done away with the historical cap on defence expenditure, unofficially at 1% of its GDP.
    • According to data from the World Bank, in 2020, Japan’s military expenditure touched 1% of GDP for the first time in six decades.
    • In 2022, it touched 1.1%.
    • Kishida’s government has pledged to double annual defence spending to around 10 trillion yen ($68 billion) by 2027, which would make Japan the world’s third-biggest military spender after the US and China.
  • Japan has acquired, and is in the process of further acquiring, its own counter-strike capability in the form of cruise missiles. In January, it signed a deal with the US to purchase up to 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles, capable of striking deep into China and North Korea. Japan is also building its own capacity in this domain.
  • Late last year, Japan’s cabinet eased its self-imposed ban on exports of lethal weapons to friendly countries. This has paved the way for the leveraging of Japan’s immense manufacturing and technological base to aid its allies.
    • Japan approved a shipment of Japanese-made Patriot missiles to the US.
    • Along with the United Kingdom and Italy, Japan is leading the Global Combat Air Programme, a multinational initiative to develop the BAE Systems Tempest, a proposed sixth-generation stealth fighter.
    • During Kishida’s visit, Japan and the US finalised the creation of a joint military industrial council to facilitate the co-production of weapons.
  • Japan and the US are in the process of revising the command-and-control framework governing their defence forces, with plans to eventually significantly integrate the command structure.
    • Currently, the US operates military bases in mainland Japan and Okinawa island, but its command structure is in Hawai’i, the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command. A joint operations command will be set up in Japan going forward.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT ON INDIA?

India has not issued a formal reaction to the recent changes in Japan’s policy. But India has no quarrels with Japan’s historical role in Asia.

India’s bilateral relationship with Japan has acquired a political character over the last two decades. But the potential for military cooperation between the two countries remains unrealised, and there is scope for New Delhi and Tokyo to discuss military-industrial collaboration.

At the end of the day, a politically resolute and militarily strong Japan that can build a stable Asian equilibrium is a positive development from the Indian perspective.

It contributes to India’s objective of building a multipolar Asia in a multipolar world.

 

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