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

Yves here. While you were busy worrying about the war in Ukraine, the US has been firming up the commitments and resolve of an all-too-willing Japan to mix things up with China. While Japan has been trying to make nice with both sides economically, much like Germany, the presence of US bases dictates loyalities.

Even though the US has been depicting China asserting more control over Taiwan as a casus belli, an astute friend in the early 1990s predicted that the Senkaku Islands would be the trigger for World War III. This was a far-sighted call, coming well before China had become a major industrial power. It’s not hard to see, for instance, that a routine scuffle could be misrepresented as a major incident to justify escalation.

By Joseph Gerson, President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy and Vice President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes. Originally published at Common Dreams

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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  1. ltr

    This terrible, terrible American incitement is the same as America encouraging Germany to become openly aggressive and hostile to Israel and planting German missiles aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Libya. Japan invaded China in the 1930s and committed unspeakable crimes against China and the Japanese government has never, never taken responsibility for the intolerable war that was launched against China.

    Forgive me for being so upset.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I’m not sure that the Japanese see this as a major strategic change, nor do they necessarily see the change in stance as being more pro-American – this is very much a US based perception of the changes. While the Japanese military budget seems large, and the proposed increase is very contentious within Japan, its military is still small, handicapped by the political insistence on a major domestic weapons industry that is only good at producing substandard and very expensive weapons (the possible exception being their conventionally powered submarines). Japanese tanks, surface ships, and combat aircraft are only notable for being staggeringly expensive, even by military rip-off standards. So from the Japanese establishment perspective, maintaining tight military ties with the US is an annoying necessity, not something that is desired or loved – the Yoshida Doctrine is still pretty fundamental to Japanese thinking, as far as any outsider can judge. But they have always operated on the assumption that the US could change its mind on a whim.

    I think the missing element of this article is that from Japans perspective, its not China that is the rising power, its South Korea. The Japanese establishment sees Korea’s growth as a major strategic competitor, militarily and economically, as its main challenge, but has struggled to come up with a coherent answer. Japan has for a couple of decades resigned itself to the reality that China is regaining its historic central position in Asia and Japan its secondary role, specifically as a Pacific, as opposed to Continental power. This is one reason why Japan specifically sees Taiwanese independence as a vital element in national security. Japan is an archipelago, and sees the ‘end point’ of the Pacific Ring archipelago – Taiwan – as its essential buffer zone. Or put another way, Taiwan is to Japan as Belorussia or Ukraine is to Russia. You have to look at the conflicts over the smaller islands in this context. Its often forgotten by the West, but Japan also has strong historical and cultural links to Taiwan (arguably, stronger than China’s), and most Taiwanese I know agree with this and consider themselves to have some cultural kinship with japan (unlike much of its history, Japans colonialism over Taiwan was relatively benign).

    Although of course, largely overlooked is that the island chain south of Japan has itself a proud history of independence and doesn’t like being fought over. The Ryukan people have for a long time resisted the Japanese insistence that they are Japanese or that their language is Japanese (the most virulently and outspokenly anti-Japanese person I ever met was a young Ryokan woman). But their interests have been largely ignored by everyone which seems the fate of small island peoples.

    Its also worth pointing out that the 1924 Treaty referred to in the article was pretty much imposed upon Japan and arguably led to their policy of a strong covert build up of battleships. Sometimes peace treaties just bottle up pressures that boil up even worse in a decade or so.

    Unfortunately, we are now entering a period of history when the half century or so US imposed dominance on the region is breaking down, leading to instability as everyone seeks to reposition themselves and dusts off old grievances and dreams. There are no good or bad guys in this (at least not in absolute terms), just aggressive nationalism from major powers and many potential victims among the weaker ones.

    1. KD

      Not clear on the mechanics of a South Korea/Japan military conflict, given all the US troops stationed in those countries. Unless South Korea shifted its alliance to China as part of some re-unification deal, in which place Japan would be up the creek. However, I am sure there is an army of “democracy activists” in South Korea to make sure that kind of thing never happens.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I’m not suggesting they could go to war. I’m just saying that from the point of view of Tokyo, South Korea is more of a potential geopolitical rival than China. For the past two decades, the ROK have been overtaking nearly every key Japanese industry, and they are now building up a much more formidable navy and air force. Japan can accept being no.2 in Asia to China (as for most of its history, this was considered normal). It is however very unhappy at being no.3 with ROK as no.2.

    2. David

      I agree. I had a certain amount to do with the Japanese military at one point, and it was clear that they had no desire to be a junior partner to the US , but rather to develop an independent defence capability, much as a “normal” state would be expected to do. The Japanese have been watching the Koreans (the two countries cooperate more than is often realised) and they’ve seen how the Koreans progressively built up their forces, and especially their air force and navy, and thus changed the balance of political power with the US. I rather think this may be similar: we’re not concerned with war fighting, but with gradually, in a very Japanese fashion, moving out of dependence on the US, such that Japan will have more influence with the US anyway, and have a national revisionary mode when and if the US goes home.

      These developments are arguably long overdue, and haven’t happened before because of the orchestrated campaigns of anti-Japanese hatred that have been a feature of the last generation. Every time the Japanese Education Ministry made a small change in a historical textbooks, carefully organised mobs would run riot in the streets in other countries. I remember thinking at the time that this was stupid and short-sighted: when the backlash came, it would be correspondingly more pronounced

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I am curious though as to why Japanese policy has seemed to go into overdrive (by their standards) since the assassination of Abe, especially as the PM seems so weak. I’ve been wondering if this is one of the long anticipated moments in Japanese history when, as one historian put it ‘all the peas run to one side of the plate’. Or whether (as I suspect), there isn’t all that new, but western analysts are putting too much emphasis on what are in reality just minor moves.

        I’ve not been following the Japanese media much lately, but I do find it striking that apart from the controversy over raising the military budget, they don’t seem to be half as excited about whats going on as the US or British media.

        1. Tokyognome

          Why Japanese policy has suddenly gone into overdrive

          Compared with hawkish Abe, Kishida came into office as a moderate, a stance that was tolerated by the Abe faction since they saw their interests sufficiently represented by the sustained powerful Abe. Following Abe’s assassination, Kishida was forced into Abe’s political footsteps by the Abe faction and had to change course. Hence the sudden policy acceleration.

  3. Louis Fyne

    Wait until the final Ukrainian military death toll versus Russian military death toll becomes widely accepted fact.

    Then let’s see what the Japanese think about hitching their wagon to the US.

  4. SocalJimObjects

    Japan going to hyperinflation will quickly put a swift end to their ambitions. Japan’s Debt to GDP is the highest among G-7 countries, and the central bank will soon own more than 50% of all outstanding long term government debt.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please do not Make Shit Up.

      If money supply caused hyperinflation, Japan would have sunk into that sea in the 1990s. Instead it has been mired in borderline deflation.

      Japan’s inflation rate is 3.8% to year. That is despite it being a major energy importer and having the yen fall over the course o the year.

    2. ChrisFromGA

      I’ve been waiting for Japan to blow for over a decade. Remember Kyle Bass’ comment – “Japan is a bug in search of a windshield?”

      Somehow they keep muddling through. The USD/JPY hitting 140 earlier this year seemed to portend something ugly about to happen, but it has since settled down a bit.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The impending implosion/hyperinflation of Japan has been anticipated since the mid-1990’s at least when many realized that the crash wasn’t just a short term blip.

        It is undoubtedly a country in long term decline, mostly for demographic reasons, but also I think major missteps in policy going on for years. But it still has many fundamental strengths – I’d never underestimate the Japanese capacity to keep things steady. For all its faults as a country and as a governmental system, they still get more strategic decisions right than wrong.

        1. ChrisFromGA

          I get the sense that the Japanese are much more cohesive as a society than the US or Europeans are and give them credit for keeping their immigration levels low despite what must be intense pressure.

      2. Willow

        USD/JPY was around 135 back pre-GFC and only strengthened above 110 when US threaten Japan with being labelled a currency manipulator. Don’t think JPY will weaken too much because a lot of the ‘weakness’ is due to JPY carry trade which is now at risk of ‘surprise’ BoJ interest rate rises.

        1. Acacia

          Well, prior to the latest run-up, the last time UJ was at 135 was 01/2002.

          Pre-GFC, UJ was roughly in the same range it’s been since 2014, i.e., 102~120.

          The latest spike in UJ seems to have happened because JPowell jacked up interest rates while Kuroda has maintained the BoJ nearly-ZIRP.

          On this topic, what I’d like to know is why Japan agreed to the 1985 Plaza Accord.

    3. Willow

      Japan’s public debt is balanced by private/corporate savings & foreign reserves and consequently at less risk than UK, EU and US.

  5. KD

    It is hard to see rationally how Japan cannot re-arm given the geopolitical winds. North Korea is rapidly expanding its missile capabilities (and nuclear capabilities), China is rapidly increasing its defense spending, and in terms of population and manufacturing could crush Japan in a war. If China has or develops the capacity to take Taiwan through amphibious invasion, then they will have the same capability to do the same to Japan. Japan doesn’t have a peace treaty with Russia. In addition, China’s existing missile defense/access denial capabilities means that China can shut down supply routes in the China Sea, and can take out US blue navy fleets. Granted, the US can cut off food/oil shipments in the Indian Ocean to China, but that doesn’t help Japan, it makes it worse.

    In addition, and its not its not without causation, there is a lot of hatred against the Japanese in SE Asia, some of which relates to WWII war crimes and the Japanese response to its history, and some because of Japanese economic influence and power over its neighbors.

    So their big ally doesn’t have the capacity to easily provide security, or protect supply lines of food and oil, and many of their smaller “allies” hate and resent them, and could easily back-stab them. In addition, Japan is undergoing a demographic collapse, which China is also experiencing but from 10x base line.

    On top of it all, it appears that the US has evolved from “containment” to “confrontation” with China, which means Japan is going to be swept up into a geopolitical conflict that it cannot control. The US is going to do what it does, and doesn’t care about the interests of the Japanese. If Japan re-militarizes, it is not with the intent to return to Imperial Japan and to conquer militarily the region, it would be to present a credible deterrent to its enemies, so it wouldn’t get squashed if America decides to provoke a conflict in SE Asia. No one wants to sign up to be the next Ukraine. Japan is never going to be able to compete head-to-head with China militarily, and the US is never going to be able to dominate SE Asia due the distance from the Continental US and the China’s anti-access capabilities. Without a nuclear capability, or at least, the ability to have one in a very short time frame, they are toast.

    There is the question of whether Japanese rearmament would provoke the Chinese–I doubt it would be any more provocative than Pelosi’s stunt last summer. The US appears deliberately committed to provoking the Chinese, so the impact of Japanese policy is probably a smaller factor.

  6. John R Moffett

    I agree that the outcome in Ukraine may make other US allies rethink their fealty to the US war machine. It could, of course, also make some of them them double down, but I have a feeling it is becoming obvious to everyone that the US military can occupy and destroy, but they can’t win wars in a conventional sense. Up until NATO and the US, along with their installed friends in Ukraine, started a war with Russia, the US has only attacked relatively defenseless countries. The last time we went up against China in Korea, things didn’t turn out so well. We will see how many military partners decide to continue helping the US pressure Russia and China after the Ukraine war ends, most likely with a Russian victory in pushing the Ukraine army out of the Donbass. The EU is not going to get anything positive out of this endeavor, so we will see if their survival instincts kick in.

  7. The Rev Kev

    Japan may re-arm but there is no way they could try to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere 2.0 as that boat has sailed. So what will Japan do with an enlarged military force? Most of the territorial disputes that they have are about small hunks of rock at sea. They have a dispute with Russia about the Kuril Islands but the results of the Ukrainian war will convince them that trying to take it would be nuts. Besides, Japan gets oil from Russia still so unless they have another option, going to war with Russia over them is a non-starter, especially as if they did somehow take them that it would lead to the US pushing them aside to establish US military bases on them.

    The Senkaku Islands is an obvious flashpoint as Japan seized them off China but back in ’71, the US handed them back to Japan rather than to China. Japan may rattle their swords at China but will only go so far as they know that the Chinese will obliterate Japan if the later attacked China itself. So I am thinking that what will happen is that Japan will use their new military in a different place – the Korean peninsular. They have a lot of disputes with North Korea though them having nukes is a bit of a bummer. And if push came to shove, it may be that the South Koreans would not support the Japanese trying to lean on the Norks as they have their own disputes with Japan. So not a lot of good options here. Maybe it would be better for Japan to configure their military as a defensive force rather than an offensive force.

  8. Acacia

    This article presents a good summary of the historical context, and while the conclusion is entirely sensible and salutary — “appeals for Common Security diplomacy and solutions” —, the US and especially the Biden administration no longer seem capable of such initiatives (Blinken? — ’nuff said).

    Regarding the current military build-up, Michael Hudson has recently commented that “Japan wants to be the Ukraine of East Asia.” In view of the hawkish discourse coming from the ruling Jiminto, their actions to revise the Constitution (which are not only about Article 9, but include many other chilling changes, like removing the language concerning human rights), and all the fatalistic youth and batsh*t neto-uyo who continue to support Jiminto, it’s easy to entertain this idea. However, I would agree with the other commenters, above, that the wisdom of any such strategy will look very different in 18-24 months, as the Ukraine inevitably collapses.

    Although it’s depressing to see Japan increasing its defense budget while so many other problems are being ignored (e.g., investing in alternate energy instead of continuing to run cover for the dying nuclear village, or dumping one million tons of radioactive wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific, or dumping radioactive earth from Fukushima in a park in Shinjuku, etc.), it makes some sense from the Japanese perspective as Washington becomes increasingly unreliable. As Mearsheimer put it: “they see us causing trouble over Ukraine, they see us picking a fight with ISIS, and they say ‘if the United States is fighting ISIS, [and] dealing with the Russians over Ukraine, are they going to be able to pivot to Asia?’ And then furthermore they say even if the United States does pivot, can we trust them? If you look at how this gang operates in Washington, it does look like the gang that can’t shoot straight. Do we want to depend on them? If you’re Japanese, and you’re depending on the American security umbrella — especially the American nuclear umbrella — don’t you scratch your head and say: ‘Can I rely on Washington in a crunch with the Chinese over the Senkaku islands?” At the same time, I find it difficult to imagine Japan getting into a military conflict with China over, say, the Senkakus, which are uninhabited rocks, or even a shooting war over Taiwan. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner. What would Japan gain by joining a dying US Empire in a destined-to-lose military action against neighboring China?

    Japan is governed not only by the LDP, but by the bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki. One hopes that the career bureaucrats will aim for a greater measure of self-sufficiency, while steering clear of any future military adventures in East Asia.

  9. ChrisFromGA

    The global picture that is emerging seems to feature 3 types of “countries”:

    1. Those that have no autonomy whatsoever, and must display absolute fealty to their suzerain. This group includes western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and the UK. Throw in most of Latin America, save Brazil, Mexico, and maybe Argentina.

    2. The refuseniks – China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria.

    3. The great middle- those that have some autonomy but must deal carefully with the empire, and are more and more playing ball with the refuseniks. India, Israel, and a few uppity characters like Hungary, Turkey, and Brazil/Argentina.

    I put “countries” in quotes. Why carry on the pretense of being a nation with free will when you fall into the first category? Why not just cut to the chase and bring Japan and Western Europe into a currency union with the militaristic empire of the US?

    1. KD

      I have been thinking since I read something about the return of fascism how the Mont Pelerin-style neoliberal framework is a lot more effective at creating an international system of capitalist control than the fascists have ever pulled off.

      Fascism was fundamental focused on a national economy, and invading and exploiting your neighbors, not really the preconditions to regional stability. . . whereas whether we are looking at the EU or WTO or these international institutions, you devolve decision-making to a bunch of unaccountables in some international bureaucracy which takes marching orders from the multinationals, and who can overturn political decisions reached by nation-states on grounds that it violates the rules. Rather than eliminate democracy, you encapsulate it, or even emasculate it, so the circus goes on but it never threatens the bottom line. . . and countries go along with it. Neoliberalism is way more insidious and devious then fascism could ever hope to be. I think fascism, at its best, would be the neoliberal demo software.

      You could say the US is a sovereign country, and it is, but you have the same financial interests pulling the strings as in the suzerainities.

      1. JBird4049

        The intellectual parents of the system were survivors, often Austro-Hungarians nationals, of the First and later the Second World Wars. They did conceive of an international economic and bureaucratic system similar to the Austro-Hungarian Empire meant to have a good enough economy for the average person without much of this bothersome democracy and, very important to them, a lack of war. That it would lock people into a system merely good enough economically for them while denying them much control of their lives was considered less important than having no wars; life in the form of an increasingly selfish, wealthy, corrupt, pseudo aristocratic, international ruling class with delusions of competency seems to have killed all that.

  10. Kouros

    “Boiling frogs might be the better analogy.” Only if we add the fact that the said frogs had their brain removed first – which would be the equivalent with the PR campaigns orchestrated from Washington, DC and Langley on the whole world about the right thought…

    I also think that if it weren’t for the US hegemonic desires, all coming from a faulty ideology and from the desire of US plutocracy to extract as much as possible from friend and foe (pecunia non olet), Europeans and Asians, in their areas, would manage to establish a modus vivendi among themselves.

  11. Maxwell Johnston

    I agree with your tripartite division. The world is splitting in half, and it will be interesting to see which side the countries in the middle end up taking (assuming they cannot remain permanently non-aligned).

    Re “why carry on the pretense of being a nation”: because appearances matter, and for the legitimacy and longevity of the Pax Americana it’s important that the USA’s allies be perceived as willing equals and not as abject subjects. Much like when Octavian became Augustus in 27 BC (or thereabouts), he insisted on retaining the Roman senate and its formal powers, even though it was crystal clear that the emperor held all the high cards and the Roman senate was purely decorative. The Pax Romana endured for another 400+ years (and Byzantium held on for 1000 years after that), so even though Octavian was a cynical fellow he was no fool. Neither are the Yankees.

  12. Tim

    For a solid Japanese pop-culture perspective of the SDF, the US and international influence I recommend watching the English language version of the Shin Godzilla movie.

    I’m not joking. Over half the movie is spent inside the Japanese government and how they perceive and react to the unprecedented circumstances and nuclear power.

    1. Acacia

      Seconded. It’s directed by Anno Hideaki, of Evangelion fame, and quite an astute look at post 3/11 Japan.

    2. Sorrdemos

      The part where the US unilaterally decides to bomb Godzilla in the middle of Tokyo, and the Japanese government has to both scramble to try and evacuate a huge number of people from the strike zone, while also retroactively filing a forged request for aid to the US military to make it appear there is still a US-Japan alliance as opposed to Japan just being subservient client state was especially spot on.

      That’s not a joke, by the way. That’s all literally in the movie. The 2016 Godzilla movie is an actual masterpiece, where just like the original it’s not about Godzilla at all.

  13. Oh

    Biden is more of a war monger than Cheney. The US wants to loot other countries and the Japanese imperialists also want to join in because they have previous experience. However the world has changed since Japan occupied and looted China, Korea, Taiwan and other countries in SE/South Asia. They’re in for a rude awakening.

  14. anon in so cal

    FT article the other day discussed “the US is ‘setting the theatre’ for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan by emulating the groundwork that enabled western countries to support Ukraine’s resistance to Russia…”

    “The US and Japanese armed forces are rapidly integrating their command structure and scaling up combined operations as Washington and its Asian allies prepare for a possible conflict with China such as a war over Taiwan, according to the top Marine Corps general in Japan.

    The two militaries have “seen exponential increases . . . just over the last year” in their operations on the territory they would have to defend in case of a war, Lieutenant General James Bierman, commanding general of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) and of Marine Forces Japan, told the Financial Times in an interview.

    Bierman said that the US and its allies in Asia were emulating the groundwork that had enabled western countries to support Ukraine’s resistance to Russia in preparing for scenarios such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. “Why have we achieved the level of success we’ve achieved in Ukraine? A big part of that has been because after Russian aggression in 2014 and 2015, we earnestly got after preparing for future conflict: training for the Ukrainians, pre-positioning of supplies, identification of sites from which we could operate support, sustain operations.

    “We call that setting the theatre. And we are setting the theatre in Japan, in the Philippines, in other locations.”

  15. Willow

    As Japan starts to ramp up its military industrial complex, watch what US equipment Japan decides NOT to buy and instead develop itself or with others (e.g. Mitsubishi F-X).

  16. Revenant

    Japan and South Korea will have to choose a competing suitor to the USA in future. But they will want to avoid choosing the same one. For SK, North Korean considerations make China key. Does SK agree to “Finlandisation” and make peace with the Panda to achieve reunification and nuclear power status? Or does it choose Russia to avoid reunification and keep the Chinese a bear’s paw away? For Japan, does it choose Russia, to resolve the Kuril’s and the northern flank, secure its energy and gain an ally against Chinese attack from the south? Or does it acknowledge China, keep the Kuril question open and strengthen its southern flank? Given China-Japan enmity and Russian interest in Manchuria and having alternatives to China, my bet is that Japan romances Russia (like Turkey is doing) and Russia gets North Pacific containmemt of China and South Korea romances China to stick one up to Japan economically and militarily and control the pace of reunification. If SK and Japan have any sense, they will make an uneasy entente with each other before cozying up to the brown and panda bears.

  17. RobertC

    The Diplomat article For Kishida and Biden, a Stronger Japanese Defense Posture Is Only Half the Battle provides a useful perspective of this week’s US-Japan Defense, State and Commerce meetings including links to Japan’s new National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Defense Buildup Program documents.

    While Japan’s recent moves to strengthen its defense posture have been met with strong support among both the American and Japanese publics, that doesn’t mean the work is done. Instead, it’s just begun.

    Another article Missiles Are No Substitute for Japan Self-Defense Forces’ Manpower Shortage describes JSDF’s dire manpower situation due to 18-26 year-olds demographics, aversion to military service, lack of family support, and historical misogyny and sexual violence towards women.

    The JSDF must be prepared for protracted and attritional warfare. But the JSDF’s inability to meet its recruitment quotas in peacetime bodes ill for the JSDF’s ability to conduct prolonged military operations. Kishida’s new cruise missiles and improved cyber capabilities will not solve this dilemma.

  18. A

    Do they have any idea that being an island, you can easily be blockaded ? With sophisticated artificial islands controlled by China in S. China sea the economy (if there is any significant economic strength) in the already bankrupted nation with 200% of debt to GDP ratio will collapse.

  19. RobertC

    Back to the shipyard

    The JSDF/JMSDF suffered a casualty during sea trials of the JS Inazuma (DD-105) Japanese Destroyer Disabled and Leaking Oil After Hitting Rock

    The hull design was completely renovated from first-generation destroyers. In addition to increasing the size in order to reduce the underwater radiation noise, both the superstructure and hull were inclined to reduce the radar cross-section. However, there is no angled tripod mainmast like the one of the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer because of the heavy weather of the Sea of Japan in winter.

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