Japan’s armed forces are getting stronger, faster

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Sstop enough time on Japanese military bases and in the offices of policymakers, and eventually you come across the same unusual map. It shows East Asia rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, as if to show the region from Beijing’s perspective, looking out over the East China Sea. It seems that the Japanese islands, and especially the Nansei island chain stretching from Kyushu to Taiwan, are like a wall. China’s ambitions for a greater global role, the map suggests, run through Japan.

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In recent years this precarious situation has prompted Japan to do more to ensure security. When the late Abe Shinzo was prime minister, Japan raised its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) – as its armed forces are called, due to its pacifist constitution – and loose laws that limit their ability to use force. But these steps were gradual – and also controversial. A lot of people in Japan are worried about moving back to military.

Changes have accelerated in the past year. In December the government updated its National Security Strategy and two important defense policy frameworks. Japan spends much more on defense and acquires powerful new weapons. China’s belligerence, under Xi Jinping, has helped counter this. But Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has played a bigger role. “The basic idea for years was that we don’t have to fight a war,” says Sasae Kenichiro, a former diplomat who chaired a council advising on the new security policies. “Now for the first time, the Japanese people are feeling the possibility of armed conflict in this region and are wondering what it means for Japan.”

Shifts in public opinion have allowed the government to take measures that were taboo just a few years ago. Keeping defense spending capped at around 1% of GDP has been an informal but inevitable rule since 1976. Now Japan plans to increase spending to 2% of GDP by 2028, and cough up an additional ¥43trn ($326bn) over the next five years. Japanese leaders have refrained from acquiring long-range missiles, even though the government decided, back in 1956, that it would not violate the constitution. Now Japan plans to buy hundreds of cruise missiles from America and develop its own long-range missiles. While Abe’s reforms drew tens of thousands to protest, the latest changes have drawn support from a majority of Japanese in opinion polls.

The war in Ukraine has pushed Japan to think more about what fighting would entail. “Putin did it, why didn’t Xi?” said one senior Japanese official. “Dictators are not always rational.”

Japan plans to spend a large chunk of its new defense money on parts and weapons, as well as hardening military facilities against missiles. The SDF also hoping to catch up on cyber warfare, where it is a laggard. Officials believe that Japan would not tolerate the kind of cyber attack that has been in Ukraine; reportedly plans to quadruple the size of Japan’s cyber forces by 2028, to around 4,000 people. The SDF it will change its command structure by establishing a joint headquarters with a single figure responsible for commanding ground, air and land forces.

All this has pleased American foreign policy types. “I have rarely had such a feeling about the celebration of the US-Japan relations, “said Kurt Campbell, who is in charge of Indo-Pacific affairs in the White House, after Kishida Fumio, the Prime Minister of Japan, met with Joe Biden on January 13. For American planners, Japan’s size, strength economic, strategic geography and military capability make it the most important Indo-Pacific ally when it comes to countering China. Japan has become essential, in particular, to America’s plans for dealing with the crisis around Taiwan. In the 1990s “our attitude was: OK, we’ll do it ourselves,” says Michael Green, a former American executive. “That’s not the idea anymore – we can’t do it without Japan.”

America has revealed plans to make Okinawa, in southern Japan, the base for one of three new “maritime regiments”, designed to spread across the island chain, avoid detection and attempt sea routes closed to Chinese ships. The two countries have also announced that their alliance is expanding into space and have agreed to expand joint training and use of military resources. Although Japan does not have a unified order with America (unlike South Korea or NATO), he will need American help with targeting and intelligence to deploy the new missiles he wants. That requires “a command and control system that is more integrated than ever before,” Oue Sadamasa, a retired Japanese air force chief, said at a recent conference in Tokyo.

For all the bonhomie, doubts about America’s staying power are also helping to drive Japan’s reforms. Officials have decided from watching the war in Ukraine, and America withdrawing from Afghanistan, that America will only come to the aid of those who are ready to fight for themselves. Japan is trying to strengthen ties with its other partners: on the way to America Mr. Kishida stopped in London to sign an agreement with Britain that will make it easier for soldiers to train and work on each other’s land. Japan also plans to develop a next-generation fighter jet with Britain and Italy. Japan, like others, is worried about the return of Donald Trump or one of his acolytes. “We have to think of a Plan B,” said one influential scholar.

Many in Japan question whether the new policies will work. Mr Kishida has not yet clarified how he will fund the new costs; the ruling Liberal Democrat Party is split on whether to raise taxes, cut spending or issue more government bonds. The plans require more workers, but Japan’s population is shrinking and the SDF already struggling to meet recruitment targets. And it is still not clear how the public would react if Japanese soldiers were sent to fight.

Japan also needs to make clear what it is going for, lest its changes only fuel conflict. Closer security cooperation with South Korea, another American ally, would help deter China. But the Japanese construction is causing many in Seoul to take notice. China itself has been caustic: “This reminds us of the last time Japan made a wrong turn and brought a terrible disaster to Asia,” he said. World times, a Chinese tabloid. One danger is that China will not see a wall being fortified, but an army creeping towards it. Japan is trying to offer some reassurance: its new security strategy refers to China as a “challenge” but not a “threat”, as some hawks had ask for Japan, for better or worse, cannot change its place on the map.

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