New role, relevance for Tokyo as allies confront threats from China

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SEOUL — Japan is assuming major diplomatic responsibilities this year, but it is the country’s just-announced overhaul of its military forces and security policy that will likely take center stage as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida prepares for an unusually packed agenda when he meets with President Biden on Friday at the White House.

As Washington seeks to align its allies on dealing with Beijing, few capitals are responding as positively as Tokyo and few loom as large for Pentagon planners.

Japan’s rearmament, which Mr. Kishida laid out last month, is accelerating at a pace unmatched in the post-World War II era. Last month, the world’s third-richest nation announced that it would double defense spending to the NATO standard, 2% of gross domestic product, by 2028. Moreover, it announced the acquisition of a Tomahawk cruise-missile-based “counterstrike” capability from the U.S. for a military that was once constitutionally limited to “self-defense” measures.

How the projectiles will synchronize with U.S. doctrine and its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in the region are unknown, but Washington and Tokyo have clearly been in close consultation as Japan emerges as a major military player in the rivalry with China.

“You don’t get to sign up for Tomahawk missiles unless the U.S. has a really good idea what you plan to do with them,” said Lance Gatling, the Japan-based principal of Nexial Research and a former operational planning officer in U.S. Forces Japan.

Last week, both countries’ industry ministers met in Washington to discuss strategic technological cooperation. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada will sit down Wednesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. On Friday, Mr. Biden and Mr. Kishida will hold talks at the White House.

Mr. Kishida is making a seven-day tour of allied capitals as Japan begins a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and hosts the Group of Seven summit of leading industrial nations in Hiroshima in May. He made stops in France, Italy, Britain and Canada before arriving in Washington.

Japan, which long punched under its weight in regional and global security disputes, is suddenly a center of attention for Washington and Beijing.

Mr. Kishida has spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which – if successful – could provide a feasible benchmark for a Chinese conquest of Taiwan. Closer to home, Japan is linked to Taiwan strategically, technologically and emotionally, much to Beijing’s displeasure.

Japan hosts 50,000 American troops, and its southernmost island chain is adjacent to Taiwan. That means Japan could be drawn into any Chinese assault on the island democracy.

Japan relies heavily on Taiwan for its supply of high-end semiconductors, and Taiwan is the only former Japanese colony that looks at Tokyo amicably.

Mr. Kishida’s tour of Western capitals and Japan’s increasing security ties with the U.S. have been met with sharp criticism from Beijing. The state-controlled Global Times warned in an editorial this week that Tokyo should get “strategically sober as soon as possible.”

“In bilateral meetings between Japan and other G-7 members,” the editorial said, “it is unnecessary and dangerous to display a hard-line attitude toward China, tout the ‘regional threat theory,’ and even attempt to conduct an ‘anti-China tandem.’ If this is the main direction of Japanese diplomacy in 2023, it will be a terrible mistake.”

Moreover, Japan has territorial disputes with China and Russia. It is also fearful of nuclear-armed North Korea, which conducted more missile tests last year than ever before. Most of the missiles were unleashed off the North’s eastern seaboard, and some flew directly over Japanese territory.


Japan has been constrained by its peace constitution for decades. In recent years, however, its Self-Defense Forces have quietly muscled up. In 2011, the SDF acquired an overseas military base in Djibouti, North Africa. In 2014, Tokyo “reinterpreted” its pacifist constitution to allow for “collective defense,” including the support of an ally (read: the United States) under attack.

In 2018, Japan created its first active marine brigade since World War II. It is also converting two vessels to light aircraft carriers — again, a first since World War II – with F-35Bs aboard. Japan already deploys more destroyers than the British and French navies combined.

This process, led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has faced ineffectual pushback. Mr. Kishida, 65, in office since October 2021, faces weak personal approval ratings, but the LDP’s ruling coalition controls both houses of the Diet and its robust stance on defense has the support of two minority right-wing parties.

“In Japan, the opposition’s position is weak, and it is hard to reflect their voices and views in decision-making processes,” said Eunjung Lim, a Japan watcher and international relations specialist at Kongju National University in South Korea. “The opposition are trying to protect the ‘peace constitution,’ but their voice may be too philosophical and abstract for ordinary people.”

U.S. defense officials welcome Japan’s new military capability and are happy to see allies shoulder the burden in the face of the Chinese and North Korean challenges. It should also please U.S. contractors, who were robbed of big contracts in 2020 when Japan abruptly reversed its decision to field an Aegis Ashore missile defense system.

At the time, officials in Tokyo cited the danger of Aegis booster components falling on Japanese settlements. Mr. Gatling, however, said the real reason was improving North Korean capabilities of sub-atmospheric ballistic missiles, which Aegis cannot counter.

The defense analyst said Tomahawks are effective against North Korean missiles, which need to be removed from the top cover, erected at a launch site and fueled. This process makes the missiles and their command centers vulnerable.

Although many believe Tokyo is reversing a long-held defensive doctrine, Mr. Gatling said it was inevitable that the SDF would evolve from its largely defensive shell.

“Back in the 1950s, the director general of the SDF said … ‘Self-defense does not mean sitting and waiting for the blow to fall upon us,’” Mr. Gatling recalled. “But at that time, they did not have a capability.”

They do now. Japan’s JDAM-armed F15s, their range extended by in-flight tankers, is a de facto counterstrike force, he said. Unmanned Tomahawks can be deployed without risking the lives of pilots. 

Despite the rapidly evolving security situation in the region, some things remain unchanged for U.S. allies. Chief among them is that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is still essential.

First, it seems unlikely that Japan could deploy its Tomahawks within striking range of Beijing’s strategic missiles, siloed deep in western China. Second, high-explosive-armed Tomahawks can’t deter in the long run nuclear-armed powers such as China, North Korea and Russia.

In return for the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Tokyo offers Washington an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Western Pacific. Japan has traditionally provided a “shield” for U.S. bases while U.S. forces provided the “spear” of maneuver forces.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Kishida are also likely to touch on the economic phase of the competition with China, which in some ways is even more intense than the military posturing.

Last week, Japanese Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo agreed to expand bilateral strategic technological cooperation to artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

In addition, Mr. Biden has approved an embargo on the export of advanced semiconductors to China that also covers the machinery required to manufacture them. With chips at the heart of the digital economy, the strategic pressure point is painful.

Japan, like the U.S., maintains a major two-way trading relationship with China despite the rising regional tensions. Indeed, China is the largest single market for Japanese exports. Scott Foster, a Tokyo-based technology analyst with LightStream Research, said Japan was likely to align with the American pressure campaign.

“I don’t know any Japanese company that puts their top technology in reach of the Chinese,” he said.

He cited experience with widespread intellectual property theft that enabled, among other things, China’s impressive network of super-high-speed trains.

So while some Japanese firms continue investing in China, “the mother factories — the top-level technology development — are not in China. They are here,” he said.  

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