In Other News – A View from Abroad – 2/3/2023

February 3, 2023

A view from Abroad
Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

Geopolitical changes are leading Japan to shift its foreign and defense policies, presenting opportunities for the European Union and the United States. In December, Japan approved a notable defense budget increase in line with the strategy outlined in its latest defense white paper. The updated strategy aims to both expand defense spending and enhance cooperation with likeminded partners. Japan’s primary security threats are North Korea, which is actively furthering its nuclear, missile and military capabilities, and China- whose increasingly aggressive military posture is a threat to many in the region. The increased military cooperation between Russia and China over the past year has only amplified Japan’s concerns.

The white paper denotes a significant shift in Japanese policy. Since WWII, Japan has pursued a pacifist and cautious foreign policy, relying heavily on Washington for its defense, including its nuclear umbrella. Japanese defense spending has been less than 1% of GDP, and even participation in UN peacekeeping missions was politically contentious, often limited to support and medical troops. But in the current international context, Japan feels that it’s necessary to “fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities as the last guarantor of national security”- and Tokyo is updating its approach accordingly.

Of the multiple regional threats, China is Japan’s greatest security challenge. The active Japan-China dispute regarding ownership of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, strategically located between the two nations, demonstrates Japan’s vulnerability and frustration. Already twice in January, Chinese vessels have intruded into Japanese waters around the islands, putting Japan on-guard. China’s threats towards Taiwan and its claims on the South China sea have also been explicitly added to the list of contentious issues between the two countries.

As the white paper describes, the Japanese are hoping to address these threats first and foremost by bolstering self-defense via increased cooperation with likeminded countries. This includes upgrading relations with the United States, but also with Australia, India, and European allies, as well as many Southeast Asian countries who are likewise under threat of the Chinese claims on the South China Sea. Enhanced maritime and military cooperation are stated as clear goals.

Japan also wants to be able to deter an attack by developing a counter strike capability, which is where things really diverge from previous policy. Tokyo plans to double its budget in line with the current NATO target of 2% GDP (more than $300 billion), which will lead to enormous outside investments. Japan has a particular interest in cruise missiles, air and missile defense, cyber security, space defense, stockpiling ammunition, and fuel, and it’s also developing a policy on economic security, vis a vis dependence on China.

The new Japanese approach has momentum and has already translated into concrete action. In January, as incoming chair of the G7, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a whirlwind tour of Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. There, he quickly secured oral and written agreements about intensified defense and foreign policy cooperation in renewed strategic partnerships or alliances. This week, SG NATO Stoltenberg visited Japan and concluded a joint declaration with Kishida on enhancing cooperation, building upon various developments in the past two months.

For the EU, it makes sense to support Japan’s more assertive defense posture on both the political and economic levels. In the short term, the EU and allies are concerned with Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine, but in the long-run China will offer the West a systemic challenge. With the need to strengthen its defense against this adversary, Japan will look to European companies for equipment, especially in areas where United States is not the preferred and established supplier. A good example of this is the joint development by UK, Italy and Japan of a next generation fighter jet in the program called “Tempest”, announced last December.

Japan is also leaning into global initiatives that aim to limit China’s prowess. Just this week, the Japanese joined the Washington-led initiative to further restrict what chip-making equipment can be sold to China, and more of these agreements are anticipated. Further, as Japan, and others, adapt policies to increase self-defense in areas ranging from military equipment to food and supply chain, EU and Western alliances are likely to expand, and leaders in Moscow and Beijing will be increasingly confronted with the unanticipated ramifications of their aggression and partnership.