Opinion | A menacing Russia and China pull Japan out of its past

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It takes a lot to break Japan’s post-1945 posture of reticence and restraint in military matters. But China and Russia have succeeded: convincing Japanese leaders that they need a “counter-strike” capability to protect themselves from growing threats.

Japan’s new stance will be on display Friday at a White House meeting between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Biden. The Japanese leader will explain in November his decision to seek parliamentary approval to spend 2 percent of annual gross domestic product on defense, roughly doubling what Japan has spent.

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“This is a turning point” for Asia, argues Kurt Campbell, who oversees regional policy for Biden’s National Security Council. It moves Japan from dependence on its own soft power and US weapons to a true military partnership. And redraw the security map, framing a NATO-like containment alliance in both the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic.

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Why is Japan taking this step toward remilitarization? A galvanizing moment for Japanese leaders, US officials say, was when China and Russia flew six heavy bombers near Japan in a joint exercise on May 24, when Tokyo hosted a meeting of the partnership “Quad” of Australia, India, Japan and Japan. United States.

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Japan expressed “serious concerns” about the flights. But China and Russia did it again in late November, sending two Chinese heavy bombers and two Russian jets over the Sea of ​​Japan. This time, Tokyo expressed “serious concerns,” again with no apparent response.

Another wake-up call came in August, when China fired five missiles into Japan’s “exclusive economic zone” during a spasm of military exercises after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif. .) visited Taiwan. “We have protested vigorously through diplomatic channels,” said Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s former defense minister who now serves as a special adviser to the prime minister. The lesson was that “nothing in the Taiwan Strait stays in the Taiwan Strait,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Tokyo, told me in an interview.

Japan has moved from talk to action over the past year. One of the main reasons is the shock over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which came less than a month after Russia and China announced a “borderless” partnership. “The world has changed dramatically, and the Japanese know it,” Emanuel said.

Kishida, although a new and politically weak prime minister, acted aggressively to support Ukraine. Japan quickly sent military and humanitarian assistance, and in March successfully lobbied eight of the 10 ASEAN countries to support a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

“Kishida understood early on that the Russian attack on Ukraine represented a blending of the Indo-Pacific and European worlds. He saw a fundamental challenge to the world order,” says Campbell. So instead of taking the usual approach of relying on the United States to solve problems, he explains, Kishida “decided to make common cause with Europe.”

At the heart of Japan’s security problem are missiles, and not just from China; North Korea regularly tests ballistic missiles that fly over Japanese territory. A decade ago, Japan invested heavily in anti-missile technologies, hoping this would mitigate the threat. But several years ago, Japanese military planners realized that an adversary could overwhelm its missile defense shield. They needed something more.

The “counterattack” strategy should provide this. The United States will provide Japan with 400 to 500 Tomahawk missiles that can hit missile sites in China or North Korea. Japan also wants to protect its space defense assets, which include satellite-guided bombs and a Japanese version of the US global positioning system, from China’s expanding anti-satellite arsenal. Therefore, the Biden administration will expand the US security treaty with Japan to cover attacks in space.

The new Japanese militancy will inevitably provoke a reaction in China, where there is a deep antipathy to Japanese military power that dates back to the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and early 1940s. If in doubt, visit Nanjing’s museum that documents Japan’s savage assault on the city in 1937. Japan has scorned power projection since its defeat in 1945, partly out of deference to these historical memories.

Japan remains a deeply peaceful country. But the weight of the past is receding, and younger Japanese want a stronger military to take on belligerent neighbors. A Jiji Press summer poll found that 75% of respondents aged 18 to 29 supported increased defense spending, with more than 60% of that age group favoring Japanese “counter-attack capabilities”.

China is in the early stages of what could be the largest military buildup in history. The Russian invasion of Ukraine effectively ended the post-Cold War era. Japan is reacting to these developments rationally. But beware: as the global order fades away, the chain of action and reaction is only beginning.

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