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Militarized Japan and the Biden-Kishida Summit, Signal Moment in the New Cold War

The Japanese government recently announced plans to double the size of its military budget, which is already the 8th largest in the world. It also issued three new military doctrines which vastly increase its war fighting commits in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. On the eve of the January 13 summit between President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Joseph Gerson published this article in Common Dreams to dispel myths about the impacts of Japan’s peace constitution, the history of its military buildup, and the expansion of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.

Across the Indo-Pacific, as well as in the escalating Ukraine War, humanity stands an accident or miscalculation away from the calamity of nuclear war.

“Japan in December adopted a set of three security and defense strategy documents that break from its exclusively self-defense-only stance. Under the new strategies, Japan vows to build up its counterstrike capability with long-range cruise missiles that can reach potential targets in China, double its defense budget within five years and bolster development of advanced weapons.” —Asahi Shimbun

“U.S. officials have welcomed Japan’s willingness to take on more offensive role, while experts say it could also help widen cooperation with Australia, their main regional defense partner.” —Asahi Shimbun

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida comes to Washington on Friday, January 13. Unlike Japan, his summit with President Joe Biden will not garner much press attention here in the United States, but it marks a signal moment in Japan’s rise in military power and in the implementation of the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy. The Strategy, which prioritizes Chinese and Russian challenges to the so-called “rules-based order”, a euphemism for U.S. primacy which is rife with contradictions, prioritizes the centrality of alliances to U.S. global power, stating that “our alliances and partnerships around the world are our most important strategic asset.”

The revitalized 70-year-old U.S.-Japan alliance has renewed importance in enforcing U.S. defense of Taiwan and resisting the expansion of Chinese influence across the South China/West Philippine Sea. This Sea is the geopolitically critical expanse of ocean across which 40% of world trade—including Middle East oil which fuels East Asian economies—flows. Similarly, further integration of the Japanese and U.S. economies and technological resources are encompassed by the alliance and seen as essential to the power and wealth of both nations.

Prime Minister Kishida has stated that the summit will be a “very important” opportunity to “demonstrate at home and abroad the further strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance.” The alliance is not a new development. In 1952 the Mutual Security Treaty (AMPO in Japanese) was secretly imposed on Japan as a condition for ending the postwar military occupation. Since then, contrary to Japan’s “peace constitution,” the island nation has served as the center of the United States’ hub and spokes Asia-Pacific alliance structure. It reinforced the Cold War containment doctrine in Asia, and in the 21st century it plays a critical role in containing and managing China’s rise and its challenge to U.S. regional hegemony.

Misconceptions About the Peace Constitution and the Growth of Japan’s Military

Misconceptions about Japan’s “Peace Constitution” abound. The document’s Article 9, which has been fervently defended by most Japanese, states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” It goes on to commit that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Yet, in the tradition of law being what those with power say it is, the Japanese Diet (parliament) and courts have been “elastic” in their interpretation of Article 9. Over recent decades, Japan’s military spending has grown to $50 billion a year and is about to be doubled. Japan currently ranks as the world’s eighth greatest military spender, well behind China, but significantly ahead of U.S. allies like Israel, Italy, Australia, and Canada.

In addition to its major role in drafting Japan’s postwar constitution, U.S. occupation forces identified and empowered the country’s post-war ruling elite. In the 1930s and 40s Japan’s elite was divided by the “militarists” who aimed to win “the whole melon”, completely destroying and replacing U.S. and British Asia- Pacific colonial empires with their own. The militarists were opposed by more sober-minded members of the elite who understood the folly of the “militarists'” ambitions and sought to expand the Japanese empire under the umbrella of U.S. and British imperial power. It was this latter camp that the U.S. occupation brought to power. Their descendants have ruled Japan almost continually since then via the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. (The successes of the occupation of Japan provided the model for the George W. Bush Administration’s ambitions in Iraq.)

During the Korean War, to protect the rear flank of its military bases across Japan, occupation forces led the Japanese government to take its initial steps in what was to become its military, euphemistically branded as the “Japan Self Defense Force” (SDF). In 1952, what had been a minimal national police force was renamed the National Safety Force and expanded to 110,000 personnel. Two years later the Safety Force was rechristened the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, shattering essential constitutional restraints. Over time the SDF would grow, as did its capabilities and regional roles.

Until recent decades, the U.S. and Japanese militaries operated with a division of labor. The SDF was responsible for guarding Japan and the more than 100 U.S. military bases and installations across the Japanese archipelago, including the massive Yakota Base in the Japanese capital and the massive concentration of bases in Okinawa which have transformed Japan into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States. Washington’s “responsibility” has been to ensure “peace” through the exercise of its regional hegemony. This has included defense of Japan via “extended deterrence,” Washington’s nuclear umbrella over Japan, which has also served as a check on the nuclear ambitions of segments of the Japanese elite and military.

Given strong Japanese pacifist commitments as a consequence of the country’s disastrous 15-year war of aggression (beginning with the 1931 invasion of China, not the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor), the military and the elite have pursued a “salami strategy” by expanding the Japanese military and its roles one slice at a time. Boiling frogs might be the better analogy. By 1989 the SDF moved to increase its capacities for overseas military deployments under cover of participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations from Cambodia and East Timor to Haiti and South Sudan. Tokyo came under enormous pressure in 1991 when popular opposition prevented the SDF from joining the “coalition of the willing” in the first Gulf War. But soon thereafter Chinese military potential as manifested in the 1996 Taiwan crisis and growing fears of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program spurred greater Japanese military commitments. A month after Chinese military forces bracketed waters around Taiwan with demonstration missile strikes, and in the wake of Okinawan protests that shook the U.S.-Japan alliance to its core, also in 1996 Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton signed the Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security Alliance for the 21st Century.

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi invoked Japan’s “responsibilities as a member of the international community” as necessitating Maritime Self Defense Force operations to provide logistical support to U.S. forces in the form transporting supplies, especially oil, across the Indian Ocean. And in 2003, this time under cover of a U.N. resolution for Iraqi reconstruction, a small SDF force was dispatched to Iraq with U.S. guarantees that they would not suffer casualties.

While it added nothing to the U.S.-led war, it was designed to whittle away at popular Japanese resistance to sending SDF forces into war zones. In 2017, Japan joined a revitalized QUAD alliance (U.S., Japan, Australia, and India) and has since participated in joint naval operations with the U.S. and partner nations in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, and over the past year it has signaled its willingness to join the U.S. in battle in the event of a war for Taiwan. Today the Japanese military is anything but inconsequential with more than 300,000 troops, an Air Self Defense Force comprised primarily of advanced U.S. fighters, and a Maritime Self Defense Force of 155 ships including destroyers and helicopter carriers, some of which can double as aircraft carriers. Japan’s rockets can reach Beijing and Pyongyang as well as Mars. It has intelligence satellites, and the Kishida government is in the process of committing to develop precision conventional first-strike attacks against North Korea and China.

At last count, Japan possessed 47 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in its stockpiles, and it has long been assumed that it is just “a turn of a screwdriver” away from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. Sheila A. Smith writes in Japan Rearmed that “the Japanese government has never argued that Article 9 would prevent the nuclear option.” And in 1996 the lead author of Japan’s Defense White Paper stated that for 30 years the SDF has believed that it has the right to deploy tactical nuclear weapons (which can be as powerful as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs). It was, he simply said, a right that the SDF had yet to exercise. In times past, U.S. diplomats have sought to influence Chinese policy decisions by threatening to rescind the nuclear umbrella over Japan, opening the way for Tokyo to become a rival nuclear power.

Responding to China’s Rise and North Korea’s Nukes and Missiles

With memories of Japan’s brutal WWII conquests and military/colonial occupations, Asian nations—especially China and Korea—have been wary of Japanese militarism and rearmament. However, China’s rise, replacing Japan as the world’s second wealthiest country, the military buildup the Chinese economy has made possible, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs came as a massive shocks to the Japanese people and establishment. They have spurred and provided the political rationale for Tokyo’s near total abandonment of Article I, its military buildup, and the expanding alliance with the United States.

In part, it’s an identity crisis that dates back to the Japanese elites’ response to Admiral Perry’s 1853 “opening” of Japan with his Black warships. The Meiji restoration, which overthrew the shogunate and created modern Japan, opted to integrate many dimensions of Western civilization, methods, and ambitions as it began to identify more with the West than the East. Throughout the 20th century, most Japanese viewed China as poor and backward, and there were complex feelings, including guilt, about their nation’s brutal invasion and colonization of much of China. Ironically, China’s industrial modernization under Deng Xiaoping was largely fueled by Japanese technologies and investments.

Despite this modern history of cooperation, the 2012 right-wing Japanese initiative to purchase the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islets which lie in the East China Sea between Japan and China triggered intensifying military tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. These uninhabited rocks are claimed by both nations and could potentially influence a struggle for control of Okinawa and the waters leading to Taiwan. Japanese and Chinese naval and air forces have conducted almost daily provocative operations around and over the islets to reinforce their claims. A collision or other accident could easily spark a military escalation, which in turn could precipitate U.S. intervention on Japan’s behalf in order to fulfill its alliance Treaty obligations.

In the face of China’s growing military power and North Korea’s increasing military capabilities, Tokyo has repeatedly increased its military budget, breaking what was the long-honored spending cap of 1% of its GDP for the SDF. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who ruled from 2012 to 2022 and was the son of the accused Class A war criminal and later Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi—pressed the expansion of the Japanese military and unsuccessfully prioritized the elimination of Article 9, constitutional limitations be damned.

In mid-December, without national debate, Prime Minister Kishida—Abe’s successor—appears to have shattered the last vestiges of Article 9 restrictions. In the last month he has committed to doubling Japan’s military expenditures. In the words of Japan’s newspaper of record, Asahi Shimbun, the Kishida Cabinet adopted new versions of three major security policies: the National Security Strategy, the Defense Strategy, and the Defense Capability Enhancement Plan. As Asahi Shimbun editorialized, “the centerpiece of his new defense strategy is the possession of the ability to strike enemy bases, which…entails the risk of triggering a Japanese action that is seen as a pre-emptive strike in violation of international law. The policy shift could also risk provoking military countermeasures from potential enemies and heighten tensions in the region.”

Japan has played the role of prized and largely obedient Asia-Pacific ally, even secretly allowing for the U.S. to introduce nuclear weapons into its Japanese bases despite Japan’s three non-nuclear principles (not to possess, manufacture or allow introduction of nuclear weapons). At the same time, its ruling elite is proceeding with an awareness that there is no permanence between friends and enemies. In the words of Sheila A. Smith, Japan has been preparing for “the U.S. abandonment of its longstanding maritime dominance in Asia [which] would leave Japan open to greater Chinese pressure.” This fear may be taking on greater traction as the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives threatens to cut Pentagon spending by $75 billion. Via its coalition building and joint operations with other Indo-Pacific naval powers, Tokyo is laying the foundations for a possible new 21st century alliance structure to restrain China

Common Security Diplomatic Alternatives

All of this is taking place in the context of spiraling arms races and provocative military activities in East Asia and more broadly across the Indo-Pacific. China responded to December’s massive increase in U.S. military spending by sending a wave of 71 warplanes and 7 warships across the medial line in the Taiwan Strait. Subsequently, a Chinese warplane intercepted a U.S. spy plane threatening a collision as it came within 10 feet of the American aircraft.

Responding to renewed and massive U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which include the toppling of the North Korean regime, Kim Jung Un launched dozens of missiles near South Korean and Japanese waters and claims to have tested a new ICBM rocket engine capable of reaching the United States. In response, the right-wing Yoon government in Seoul and the Biden administration are meeting to deepen their nuclear weapons collaborations. Meanwhile, deeper into Asia, Chinese and Indian forces came to blows again in their contest to control oxygen-thin heights in the Himalayan mountains.

Were the stakes not so high, these reckless demonstrations of power could be compared to Mafia battles for street cred. Just as there are rules for the games of Mafia struggles for power, there are also diplomatic rules and international law designed to prevent catastrophes in great power and other international competitions. Not the least is the United Nations charter which obligates states to “refrain….from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”, and requires that international disputes be resolved by peaceful means. These rules were further enhanced in the 1980s by the common security commitments that no nation will seek to enhance its security by jeopardizing that of other nations. Common Security served as the paradigm on which the Cold War was brought to an end prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and it defined Euro-Atlantic relations throughout the 1990s, the first decade of the post-Cold War era.

Today, across the Indo-Pacific, as well as in the escalating Ukraine War, humanity stands an accident or miscalculation away from the calamity of nuclear war. It is past time for the U.S., Japan, China, and the Koreas to pursue their national interests—including human survival—by backing away from and reversing their dangerously spiraling military confrontations and embrace common security diplomacy and solutions. With necessity being the mother of invention, as it faces possible massive cuts in U.S. military spending by the newly-installed GOP majority in the House of Representatives, the Biden Administration could proactively get ahead of the curve. It could renew appeals for Common Security diplomacy and solutions, urging great and lesser power collaborations—including reversal of the dangers of the climate emergency—instead of pursuing primacy.

Rather than pouring military fuel on the fire, the U.S. and Japan, each of which faces major economic and social challenges, should cease encouraging Taiwanese independence and encourage what would be difficult and extended Taiwanese-Chinese negotiations over the self-governing island’s future. As in the days that immediately followed the brief Biden-Xi summit, the two great powers could ratchet down the number and intensity of their provocative military exercises.

Much as the 1924 naval agreement between the U.S., Japan, and Britain ensured more than a decade of relative peace across the Pacific, today’s Asia-Pacific powers could agree to collaborate in securing South China/West Philippine sea lanes, encourage ASEAN-Chinese negotiations for a regional code of conduct, and share the Sea’s vast resources. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan could reengage diplomacy with North Korea by signaling a willingness to reduce and then halt their escalating tit-for-tat military operations and press for a resumption of a version of the Six-Party Talks of the first decade of this century.

Reprising the words of a Japanese-American prophet, Yoko Ono, “War is over if you want.” Solutions are known. The question is if we have the will to secure them.

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