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U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Tokyo this week has recharged Japan’s debate about whether to have a tougher defence policy, and a more powerful arsenal to back it up

A member of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force takes part in a April 21 military drill on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, next to an anti-ship missile launcher.Issei Kato/Reuters

The war in Ukraine has rewritten foreign policy doctrines across not only Europe but also Asia. Nowhere is this more visible than in Japan, where the officially pacifist country has responded forcefully to Russia’s aggression and accelerated defence reforms.

In part this is driven by Tokyo’s long-standing alliance with Washington, which is reaching new heights under U.S. President Joe Biden after a rocky few years during the Donald Trump administration. To the surprise of some analysts, Japan has been in lockstep with the U.S. and European allies over Ukraine, slapping Moscow with sanctions, expelling Russian diplomats, and sending aid to Kyiv.

Mr. Biden will visit Tokyo after a stop in South Korea this weekend, the trip serving as evidence of what Washington has been insisting since the war began: that events in Europe have not distracted the U.S. from a renewed focus on Asia.

Indeed, the Ukraine conflict has informed long-standing debates among the U.S. and its allies in the region about how to respond to an increasingly aggressive Beijing. Just as Finland and Sweden have reacted to Russia’s invasion by reconsidering their long-standing neutrality, Japan has been alarmed by the potential precedent the conflict might set for its own expansionist neighbour.

“What happened in Ukraine has encouraged many Japanese to reflect on what we should be doing in order to protect ourselves, in order to respond if the same kind of situation happens in our neighbourhood,” Tomita Koji, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, said last week.

U.S. President Joe Biden looks on as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida greets German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at NATO headquarters this past March.Thomas Coex/Pool Photo via AP

In a Kyodo News poll in March, more than 75 per cent of respondents said they were worried China might take military action over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan’s soon-to-be updated National Security Strategy, which calls for a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” with China, is widely expected to be changed to refer to Beijing as a “threat” to Japan.

Tokyo has also stepped up support for Taipei. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could involve strikes against U.S. bases in Japan, as well as severe disruption to shipping and the economy in general across East Asia, hurting Tokyo even if it attempted to stay out of the conflict.

As Yamashita Takashi, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former justice minister, pointed out, the distance between Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni and the Taiwanese mainland is narrower than the strait that divides Taiwan and China. “If Taiwan is attacked, that might affect this area, which means Japanese territory,” he said at the Washington-based Hudson Institute this month.

Mr. Yamashita is among a number of lawmakers pushing for Japan to drastically strengthen its defence capabilities, including obtaining a “counterstrike capability” and expanding spending to 2 per cent or more of GDP. This transformation was under way before the war in Ukraine, but has been supercharged by the conflict.

Speaking at the same event, former defence minister Onodera Itsunori said “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the strategic thinking of Japan’s policy-makers; they conclude that Japan needs to improve its own defence capabilities and deepen its ties with allies.”

Pedestrians in Tokyo pass a TV screen on March 23 showing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's address to the Japanese parliament.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Protesters march in Tokyo on April 8 with a banner reading ‘no war’ in Japanese. Hiro Komae/The Associated Press
A woman prays at an April 17 mass for Ukrainian war vitims at a Tokyo church. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Following the end of the Second World War, a defeated Japan was forced to adopt an officially pacifist constitution, forever renouncing war “as a sovereign right of the nation” and the “use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Many figures on the Japanese right have long pushed to change this, particularly as China has outpaced its neighbours militarily and begun aggressively pursuing territorial claims. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe called repeatedly for the constitution to be amended, without success. In 2015, the government did reinterpret its ability, however, to take part in foreign conflicts where this can be justified as “collective self-defence.”

“The view had long been that Japan should only use force to defend itself, and there had been a reluctance to purchase offensive weaponry, that’s now changing,” said James Brown, an associate professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo. “The big debate is whether Japan will acquire longer range missiles with which it can strike enemy bases. The argument is that this is needed to defend Japan from North Korea, but clearly missiles with sufficient range … would also be able to hit Chinese targets as well.”

Any such move would certainly be regarded as aggressive by Beijing. When South Korea deployed a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in 2016 in response to threats from the North, China called on citizens to boycott South Korean goods.

In April, Chinese military spokesman Tan Kefei, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, said Japanese defence reforms “are alarming indicators that the international community should be extremely watchful and concerned about.”

A man in Tokyo passes a TV screen showing Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24.Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press

While relations between Beijing and Tokyo have never been easy – with few in China willing to forget the atrocities inflicted upon their country during the Second World War – Japan has in the past attempted to maintain relatively equanimous ties with Russia. This was largely driven by the dispute over the southern Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan. Annexed by the former Soviet Union, the islands remain under Russian control and have been a point of contention between the two sides since.

During the Abe administration, Tokyo pursued a policy of engagement with Moscow, in the hopes this would secure the return of at least some of the territory. There was also a desire to avoid Russia and China uniting against Japan, Mr. Brown said. “The view was that Japan can’t be tough on Russia because the consequence would be Russia and China being pushed closer together,” he said. “That’s totally flipped now, the policy has become that Japan has no choice but to be tough on Russia, because otherwise it would send the wrong message to China.”

In taking an aggressive stance on Ukraine, most analysts agree Japan has essentially written off any chance of regaining the Northern Territories, and also compounded an already complex security environment.

Bill Emmott, a Japan expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said “ways in which Russia and China can collaborate, and the role of the Northern Territories in that future collaboration, should not be underestimated.”

Speaking at the Hudson event, Japanese lawmaker Sato Masahisa described a potential scenario whereby Beijing could lean on both North Korea and Russia to take actions that would tie up Japanese and U.S. forces as a prelude to an invasion of Taiwan.

Even without the potential for such co-ordinated action, few would disagree that Japan is increasingly in what Mr. Tomita describes as “a rough neighbourhood.” For Tokyo, this has only energized the push to upgrade its defences and secure military alliances that may one day be tested in the way Russia has challenged those in Europe.


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