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People watch a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 3.HEO RAN/Reuters

People across Northern Japan were ordered to take shelter Thursday as North Korean missiles flew over the country, part of a barrage of launches in response to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

Tensions in East Asia have risen sharply in recent months, with South Korean intelligence warning the North may be preparing for another nuclear test. Pyongyang’s aggressive response to both U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris’ trip to the peninsula and recent war games may be part of an attempt to justify a new test, analysts say.

In neighbouring Japan, where residents have twice in the past month been alerted to missiles flying overhead, Pyongyang’s sabre rattling, as well as threatening moves by China and Russia, has revived calls for the officially pacifist country to rearm.

Tokyo is currently working on a new national security strategy, and Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada has said his team would “not rule out anything,” including investing in so-called “counterattack capabilities.”

South Korea not considering tactical nuclear weapons after North’s missile barrage, defence minister says

Repeated administrations have pushed to change Article 9 of the Japanese constitution – drafted by the victorious Allies after the Second World War – which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

In 2015, lawmakers approved a reinterpretation of the constitution that expanded the remit of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, such as allowing them to come to the aid of an ally in time of war, but attempts to ditch the pacifist clause, including by late prime minister Shinzo Abe, have all come to naught.

After Mr. Abe’s assassination in July, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to honour his legacy by reforming the constitution. But revelations about his Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the Unification Church in the wake of Mr. Abe’s killing – the assassin claimed the church had bankrupted his family – have sent Mr. Kishida’s popularity rating plummeting, and it is unclear whether he would have enough support from lawmakers, let alone the public, for such a move.

Polling this year showed that about 55 per cent of the Japanese public were in favour of changing the constitution, with many worried about tensions with Russia over Ukraine and China’s veiled threats to invade Taiwan, which could pull both the U.S. and Japan into a war. But were Mr. Kishida to take the matter to a referendum, his underwater approval ratings risk sinking any pro-reform campaign.

That does not mean Japan is standing by as its neighbourhood becomes more dangerous. After winning elections in July, Mr. Kishida pledged to double the defence budget to about ¥10-trillion ($93-billion) within five years.

That extra money will pay for longer-range missiles – improved Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Type 12s, Kongsberg joint strike missiles and Lockheed Martin joint air-to-surface standoff missiles – that can strike distant warships and land targets in China or North Korea. Full details are to be unveiled in December alongside the revamped security strategy.

Last week, Nikkei reported that efforts were also under way to set up a new joint command to oversee the three wings of the Self-Defense Forces and better co-ordinate with the U.S. military. According to the Japanese newspaper, the plan will involve amending the Self-Defense Forces Act, similar to the 2015 changes, to set up a “rapid-response system” by 2027 – when China may try to invade Taiwan, as some have warned.

Japan identified China as its chief adversary in a defence white paper in 2019, and last year included a section on Taiwan in its military planning. Speaking to The Globe and Mail this week, retired Japanese vice-admiral Toshiyuki Ito warned that a Chinese takeover of the self-ruled island would “totally change” the geopolitics of East Asia.

“The Pacific would become the China Sea,” he said.

Mr. Ito has pushed for more engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the Quad – a loose grouping of Japan, the United States, Australia and India that some have touted as a potential “Asian NATO.”

In a joint statement last year, the Quad’s members endorsed a shared vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas,” where Beijing has made increasingly aggressive territorial claims in recent years.

Speaking at a defence forum in Tokyo last month, Christopher Johnstone, a former director for East Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, said one key lesson of the war in Ukraine has been the importance of a co-ordinated international response.

He praised Japan’s role in that, saying Tokyo’s quick imposition of sanctions against Russia “served to make the response to the conflict global.”

“The concept that the rules-based international order is indivisible, it’s not separated into various regions, is a vital one,” Mr. Johnstone said, adding that Japan and its allies should always be giving thought to how they can “put in place that coalition to respond to aggression, whether it’s from North Korea or China.”

At the same event, multiple speakers also noted the impact Russia’s nuclear arsenal has had on war in Ukraine, both through the threat of tactical nukes and just sheer deterrent power.

“Japan exists in what I call a nuclear vortex. You have Russia, China and North Korea – that’s a very difficult environment in which to work,” said Gary Roughead, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former chief of naval operations.

He said one major step that could be taken is operationalizing the Quad, establishing a “standing maritime force,” command of which would rotate between the four countries. Such a force could operate in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, Mr. Roughead said, augmenting coast guards in the region and acting as a deterrent to further Chinese territorial encroachment.

Such a move would be roundly condemned by China, which already views the Quad, along with other regional alliances such as AUKUS, with great suspicion.

As the main victim of Japanese aggression during the Second World War, China has long opposed any rearmament by Tokyo.

The issue is also controversial in South Korea, which was part of a Japanese colony until 1945.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo remain strained, with ongoing territorial and historical disputes often spiking attempts to build stronger ties. Nevertheless, most analysts agree the two countries need to pull together if they are to push back against China and North Korea.

“The relationship between Japan and South Korea is vital,” Mr. Roughead said.

Mr. Kishida had his first face-to-face talk with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, the first time leaders of the two countries have met since December, 2019.

On Sunday, South Korea is due to take part in Japan’s naval fleet review, despite objections to the Self-Defense Forces’ use of the Second World War-era “Rising Sun” flag.

With files from Reuters