China’s launch of missiles into waters less than 160 kilometres from Japan, following the visit of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, will likely increase Japanese public support for the country’s defensive military build-up. Just after Pelosi became the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years on August 2, the Chinese military launched five ballistic missiles into the sea on the western end of Japan’s Okinawa Island chain on August 4 as part of military exercises. China’s missile launch into Japan’s exclusive economic zone comes as the government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is preparing to issue a defence budget this month for a substantial increase in defence spending.
The defence budget spending plan will follow a year-end defence policy revision that is expected to include a call for Japan to purchase longer-range munitions to fend off China, which has replaced North Korea as the primary national security threat. Concerns about China’s military activities in the seas and skies around Taiwan and Japan have intensified since Russia invaded Ukraine in February because Japan is concerned that this sets a precedent for China’s use of force against Taiwan and that the US cannot directly intervene to prevent it.
On the other hand, in its annual defence report published on July 22, Japan plans to increase its military spending to 2 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the minimum commitment set by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. Given Japan’s current economic size, this would make it the third largest military spender after the US and China. According to the report, Japan currently allocates only 0.95 % of its GDP to defence spending. China’s missiles give the Kishida government an important trump to strengthen its position on defence spending. The most important factors affecting this are the ongoing war in Ukraine, an ambitious China and the ongoing missile and nuclear weapons tests of North Korea. In compiling Japan’s new security strategy, Kishida said it sought to deepen the steps necessary to protect people’s lives and to “substantially support” Japan’s defence in five years. Moreover, he promised to improve the legacy of previous prime minister Abe Shinzo.
During the Taiwan crisis in 1996, China conducted a series of missile exercises to scare the island, but it was not enough to deter the US carrier task group from being sent to the area, as its military was weak. But today, the conditions are quite different because China has since increased its defence spending nearly 20 times and strengthened its navy with hundreds of new ships and has ballistic missiles that can hit targets thousands of kilometres away more accurately. In short, it should be remembered that the People’s Republic of China is today in the strongest military position in its history, and there is absolutely no China like it was during the 1996 Taiwan crisis.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kishida said in a post-election speech after the parliamentary upper house elections on July 10 that they would move forward with their plans to change the constitution and deepen the parliamentary discussions on the constitutional revision so that a concrete amendment proposal could be compiled. The planned constitutional amendment is to amend the 9th article of the constitution, which says that “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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 order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
According to Japan’s 1947 constitution, in order to amend the constitution, a two-thirds majority must be obtained in both houses of the parliament, followed by a majority in a nationwide referendum. Under the current circumstances, the forces that advocate a revision of the constitution have a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. Although the majority in the lower and upper houses of the parliament make the necessary amendment to the constitutional revision, there is not yet a consensus among the parties advocating the amendment on how to make the amendment. However, when the current regional and international cyclical developments are evaluated, it seems likely that pro-constitutional revisionist forces will meet on common ground and agree on changes. The main problem that can be encountered here is whether a majority will be achieved in the popular referendum because the Japanese people remember the painful memories before and during the Second World War and prefer a pacifist Japan, which is the continuation of the 1947 constitution, which is described as a peace constitution, rather than a militarist Japan. However, while it is a question of whether there will be a change in the situation after Abe’s assassination, the fall of Chinese missiles in the Japanese exclusive economic zone may have an effect on the Japanese people in a possible referendum. Moreover, suppose other such developments occur in the upcoming period. In that case, it seems highly likely that the Japanese people will also support Japan’s efforts to legitimize the army and increase its defence expenditures.
When the constitution was made, and the security cooperation agreement was signed with the USA, the international conjuncture was very different from today. At that time, the security treaty with the US was designed for the Soviet threat, and the Yoshida Doctrine was sufficient for Japan’s security policy during the Cold war era. However, when the Cold war ended and the Soviet threat disappeared, naturally, changes occurred in the Asia-Pacific balance of power and the international conjuncture. Security threats for Japan after this period were related to the rise of China and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats, but they were not limited to these because, in general, there was a period of economic rise in east Asian countries, a period in which the US and Japan lose relative power.
Considering all these, Japan tried to add a new paradigm to the Yoshida Doctrine in the post-Cold War era. They called it “multi-tiered” security. One pillar of it was the rearmament of Japan. In this context, the need for a reinterpretation of the restrictive 9th article of the constitution arose. The article forbids Japan from fighting outside of self-defence and outside of Japanese islands. In this context, Japan sent troops to many conflict regions of the world, especially Somalia, Syria, Rwanda, Cambodia and so on, with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation missions. But efforts to provide a legitimate basis for the army have not yielded results.
The alliance with the US, the most important tier of the multi-tiered approach, was sufficient to meet Japan’s security needs during Cold War, but the circumstances are different now. It’s not enough for today. In addition, the possibility of an “entrapment” through the alliance is much higher than during the Cold War period, especially since the conclusion of the new defence cooperation guidelines with the US in 1997. That’s because the new policies paved the way for Japanese-US military cooperation in “situations in the regions surrounding Japan”, where the concept is defined situationally rather than geographically, and that both countries will “make every effort, including diplomatic efforts”. Moreover, unlike the 1952-60-78 agreements between the US and Japan, the concept of the Far East was replaced by the concept of Asia-Pacific. The guidelines encouraged a review of the legal framework for Japan’s national defence preparations in crisis and conflict situations. With the new guidelines, the debate about how japan should respond in a conflict situation has become apparent. In other words, Japan recognized that stability in the region was directly dependent on Japan’s security and that under the new international conditions, by providing active logistical support to US forces, Japan would go beyond allowing the US to use military bases in Japan. In other words, there is a possibility that Japan is now trapped in a much wider geographical area. His policy towards Taiwan in recent years has further increased this possibility.
The word “situational” instead of “geographical” in these guidelines and the term “Asia-Pacific” instead of “Far East” is a nuisance today because both terms can lure Japan into a trap when there is a crisis in Taiwan. Likewise, when there is a crisis in the Philippines too. In other words, it can trap Japan in any crisis in the East and South China Seas. In every possible crisis here, the opposite country will be China.
Japan’s distress stems from its inability to foresee the present in the 1990s because in the 1990s, as the US went to reduce troops from the Far East in the first years after the Cold War, Japan was the most significant military and economic power in the region. It was trying to be more active in rebuilding the regional security order. The multi-tiered security approach at the time included both bilateral security with the US and multilateral security with the countries of the region, mainly through the ASEAN Regional Forum, and multilateral arrangements later as well as sub-regional arrangements. In none of these was China assigned a role in building a regional security order. Today, however, the situation is very different. China is the pivot country of the regional security order, primarily through Conference on Cooperation and Confidence Building Measures and other multilateral mechanisms in which China either founded or actively participated.
The multilateral and sub-regional layers of this multi-tiered security approach are not new paradigms; they are supplementary and complementary paradigms to the paradigm based on a bilateral alliance with the US based on the Yoshida Doctrine. Considering the current conditions in the light of the aforementioned, Japan’s Yoshida doctrine-based and later additional multi-tiered security paradigms are not enough to meet the security needs. The country needs to move to a new foreign policy conceptualization and paradigm that takes into account today’s regional realities. In this vein, Japan should consider abandoning its multi-tiered security approach because neither the legitimization and armament of the army with a possible constitutional amendment will ensure the security of Japan, in which case it will trigger a regional security dilemma even more, nor can it escape the danger of being entrapment by its alliance with the US, nor multilateral or sub-regional arrangements that do not play a role in building a regional order for China can meet security needs for Japan.
Japan was quite late in the revision of the constitution, the legitimation of the army, and the rearmament, because in the first years after the Cold War, Japan’s military budget was higher than that of China. Today, China’s military expenditures are almost five times that of Japan. At the moment, I consider Japan’s current situation as a “looser”. There are two options in front of Japan; either it will become a nuclear power as soon as possible, or the foreign policy paradigm based on Yoshida doctrine will change. It is known that if Japan chooses to become a nuclear power, it is in a position to become nuclear power in a very short time. This option removes Japan from the role of the losing country but does not give the “winner” role, but it guarantees that through nuclear deterrence. However, it is evident that this can create a severe problem due to both domestic and international reflections. It is a matter of great curiosity to what extent people who have suffered from militarism and been hit by an atomic bomb in the past will support becoming a nuclear power. Moreover, from an international perspective, first of all, Japan’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and facing international reactions and possible sanctions is in question. Above all, it would increase regional armament much more and perhaps the enthusiasm of other countries to become nuclear powers, as it could trigger a perception of a Japanese regional resurgence of militarism.
Japan’s new foreign policy paradigm should be “multilateral accommodation”. This paradigm is based on abandoning the Yoshida Doctrine paradigm because at no level of the current multi-tiered security policy, China had no defined role in the regional security order, and we are not in the world of the 1990s. A foreign and security policy paradigm without China’s role is out of the question for Japan. That’s why the paradigm needs to change now. Japan, just like the Rhine Pact signed among Germany, France, England, Italy and Belgium in 1925 after the First World War, which prohibits war among the parties, or the Briand-Kellogg Pact, which was signed in 1928 and included the important powers of the period, with China must seek a way to compromise. However, it can be said that neither the Rhine Pact nor Briand-Kellogg Pact could prevent a war among the parties. This is exactly why I propose a multilateral accommodation since a compromise between the two countries will not be enough. First, a bilateral accommodation should be reached between the two countries, and, as in the multilateral-bilateral approach, this bilateral accommodation should be moved to a multilateral basis, as bilateral cooperation between the two countries can play a milestone, a constructive role in the construction of multilateralism. China and Japan should jointly assume leadership in a regional security arrangement. That’s when Japan’s security problem is solved to a great extent. The country already has two main security problems; the rise of China and the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea. While the first threat can be overcome in this way, the second threat can also be mitigated through the relationship established on this ground with China since it should be expected that China’s influence on North Korea will become an option that can be used in this regard by Japan.
Oktay Kucukdegirmenci graduated from Balikesir University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration in 2015 Turkey. In 2018, he completed his master’s degree at Atilim University, Department of International Relations in Turkey. Kucukdegirmneci is continuing his doctorate studies in the Department of International Politics at Shandong University, China. Kucukdegirmenci carries out his studies in Chinese Foreign Policy, Japanese Foreign Policy, sino-Japanese Relations, Sino-Russian Relations and Cold War History.