Japan seeks NATO help to counter China
In this edition, Japan’s decision to remove its defense spending limits is intended to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
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Ahead of the G7 summit last month, on May 10, Japan’s foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, confirmed that NATO would very likely open a liaison office in the country, the first of its kind in Asia. “Since the aggression by Russia on Ukraine,” Hayashi said, “the world has become more unstable.” Regional security in the Indo-Pacific in the wake of the war, he added, means that “cooperation between us in East Asia and NATO is increasingly important.” The G7 summit resulted in the world’s seven richest countries agreeing that they needed to “de-risk” their economic and trade relationship with China.
Since January, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has rallied support from Western nations by pointing to China’s militarization of the East and South China Seas, Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and increased nuclear testing by North Korea. NATO’s decision to establish a liaison office in Japan represents an extension of the Western alliance system into the Indo-Pacific region, something that has broader implications for global politics.
In de-risking their relationships with China, the G7 emphasized that it did not seek to “harm China” or “thwart China’s economic progress and development.” But China’s close relationship with Russia and China’s increasing aggression toward its neighbors has forced the G7, in its words, “to act in our national interests.”
This action underlines the fact that East Asia is no longer an isolated theater but a major focal point of global strategic competition. It also signals that Japan, often seen as a quiet economic powerhouse, is emerging from its hibernation on regional, and even global, security matters.
“Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow,” Kashida said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., referring to the threat posed by China and North Korea. It’s why Japan has been widely reported to be doubling its defense spending over the next five years.
WHY IT MATTERS
Since 1976, the defense spending for Japan has been capped at one percent of the national gross domestic product. The self-imposed restriction was meant to signify Japan’s path toward peace after its aggressive actions during World War II. “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,” Article 9 of its Constitution states.
That cap has become symbolic of Japan’s post-war pacifism. It was also a boon to Japan’s economic growth, with effectively no army to fund. While Japan was looking to the United States for security, it could spend a greater proportion of its resources on healthcare and education compared to most other countries. Japan soon emerged as a technological powerhouse. Its total exports in 2021 amounted to $756 billion, and the country ranks third in the world in patent applications.
But Japan has had to rethink its security outlook. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the Japanese establishment. Japan has been especially strong in condemning the war, in part because it fears the message that Russian aggression sends to China. Japan’s increased defense spending might ensure the nation’s security but it also runs the risk of inflaming tensions with China. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that Japan needed to be “extra-cautious on the issue of military security” because of its “history of aggression.”
China has also responded strongly to Japan’s growing security ties with the United States, Australia and India, a formation referred to as “the Quad.” At a security conference in Singapore earlier this month, the Chinese defense minister, Li Shangfu, said that the Quad would “plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts.” NATO-like alliances in China’s neighborhood, Shangfu said, was “a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations.”
About a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, China called attention to the Quad as a provocation. A Chinese diplomat described the Quad as a ploy toward “fragmentation and bloc-based division that is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe.” In March 2022, Wang Yi, the former Chinese foreign minister, went on record to say that the real goal of the Quad was to “establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has said that opening a NATO liaison office in Japan would be a “big mistake.” But with China and Russia’s partnership showing no signs of weakening, countries in the region will be looking for ways to counter Chinese dominance.
The escalating tensions and uncertainties surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine have highlighted the need for countries across the world to rethink their alliances and security agreements to guard against potential aggression. In the Asia-Pacific region, strategic trust and cooperation are growing between key regional players such as Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a record depreciation of the Japanese yen over the last year. Energy-poor Japan relies on imports more than any other nation within the G7, with liquefied gas accounting for a third of its power generation. Ten percent of that gas comes from Russia. At 38%, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is also relatively low and far off the 45% target it is aiming to achieve by 2030. The war in Ukraine exposed Japan’s vulnerability to disruptions in its supply chains.
As a result, Japan has been proactive in its response to the war, quickly following the Western line. The decision to welcome a new NATO liaison office is a hedge against the rising ambitions of China and the possibility that Russia’s war in the Ukraine could escalate hostilities in the Indo-Pacific.
“In a more dangerous world,” tweeted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in April, “security is not regional but global.” He had just met with delegates from South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. NATO’s “deepening ties” with its “Indo-Pacific partners,” Stoltenberg argued, reflected a desire to “uphold the rules-based international order.” Beijing, Stoltenberg has said, “is watching closely what is going on in Ukraine and if Putin wins there that will impact their decisions on how to behave in Asia.”
Just a week ago, China and Russia conducted a joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea, forcing both Japan and South Korea to scramble their own fighter jets. The Chinese and Russian joint patrols began taking place before the war in Ukraine, but now there is a growing number of joint military exercises between the U.S. and its allies in the region. Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine has reminded China’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific that their national security might be dependent on forming alliances of their own, alliances with sufficient force to make China think twice before following Putin’s path.
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