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Japan is muscling up and locking arms with allies to face China

(Takashi Aoyama/Pool Photo via AP)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands after holding a joint media briefing on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Tokyo.

Being picked on by bullies is a common schoolyard memory. Many of us experienced it. And we wondered what to do. Give in? Run away? Get help from friends? Fight back?

Something similar has been happening in Northeast Asia, where Japan has been getting pushed around by more aggressive neighbors for years. The country has a strong pacifist streak enshrined in its postwar constitution, which renounces war to solve disputes. That pacifism has made it the skinny kid in a tough schoolyard.

But Japan seems to have gotten tired of getting pushed around. Or realized more clearly the danger it is in.

In December, the country announced in its new national security strategy that it would be doubling its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP over the next five years, spending an additional $315 billion. That outlay would make its defense budget the third largest in the world, just behind those of the U.S. and China.

For decades Japan’s pacifist forces kept a lid on defense spending at 1 percent of GDP. But now the nation is blowing that lid off. Japan is muscling up its skinny frame. 

Japan will be spending more money to acquire counter-strike missiles, which have the ability to hit enemy bases far away. Such strategic capabilities would have been a political non-starter just a few years ago.

It sees dangers coming from China, North Korea and Russia, but it has pointed to China as the greatest strategic challenge to its peace and security.

The change is historic but has been a long time coming.

Since 2012, China has been behaving like a bully, routinely intruding into Japan’s waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. And it has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea as a way to assert regional authority since then.

North Korea and Russia follow similar tactics. North Korea frequently fires ballistic missiles around Asia but it set a new record for missile testing in 2022, along with firing yet another missile over Japan. And Russia stepped up military exercises with China around Japan, after Japan supported tough economic sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have forced Japan to realize how perilous its own circumstances are. Inspired by the courage and steely resolve of the Ukrainians, Japan recognizes that it has to show its allies that it is willing to fight, too. 

As Prime Minister Fumio Kishida artfully said, “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.” Kishida’s remark was aimed at China. And when China retaliated with live fire exercises against Taiwan for hosting then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) August visit to the island, Japan’s suspicions of China’s military ambitions were only reinforced.

But Japan is not just muscling up on its own. It’s also getting help from its friends.

It has strengthened relations with its closest ally, the United States. Kishida’s Jan. 13 White House meeting with President Joe Biden showed that the U.S.-Japan alliance is extraordinarily strong now. As strong as ever.

And Japan is locking arms with other allies. Before visiting Biden, Kishida visited the leaders of key G7 members, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada. He signed new defense-related deals with FranceItaly and the U.K. Increasingly, G7 members see China’s behavior in Asia as troubling.

Japan initiated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) with Australia, India and the U.S. many years ago. Australia has recently been roughed up by China. After Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, China retaliated with tariffs against an array of Australian imports into China.

And an ongoing border dispute between India and China has made India more willing to take part as an active member of the Quad. As a result, China is getting strong pushback from the Quad, and it is not happy about that. 

Finally, there is NATO. In June, Kishida made history by being the first Japanese prime minister to join a NATO summit. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg just wrapped up his own trip to Japan.

Stoltenberg did not mince words either, saying China is bullying its neighbors and also calling out North Korea and Russia. He praised Japan’s defense spending plan of 2 percent of GDP, putting it in line with NATO’s standard.

The message from Japan to China is clear: I am not the skinny kid anymore — I am muscling up to fight back. And you may be bigger than I am, but I have more friends than you do.

That’s good news for Japan and the world. But bad news for the bullies.

David Boling is the director Japan and Asian Trade at Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory firm.

Tags Fumio Kishida Japanese prime minister Japan–United States relations Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States Quadrilateral Security Dialogue US-China relations

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