Japan In East Asia – More Or Less Defensive

Japan, alongside the international community has welcomed North Korea’s announcement via Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that its nuclear and missile testing program will be immediately suspended. Although Japan has expressed this represents a positive step towards improving the region’s acute insecurity, reservation has accompanied the news. As a major regional stakeholder, Japan’s security perceptions have been directly shaped by North Korea’s escalated aggression towards them, as well as China’s growing assertiveness. While new developments raise hopes of easing regional tensions, Japan’s defence outlook and regional stance has shifted to its most defensive posture since World War II, meaning Japan’s next moves may potentially escalate the military armament of the region.

Following years of aggressive political threats, missile and nuclear tests, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un recently announced nuclear and some missile testing will immediately stop. While the international community has so far responded positively to this news, the underlying and little focused fact within the announcement is North Korea’s confirmation of having achieved its goal of nuclear capacity. A new nuclear state in the East Asia region (and indeed the international platform) should now raise more alarm for dialogue and verifiable processes to be actioned.

This point has not bypassed Japan, whose pacifist attitude under the country’s Constitutional declaration on the Renunciation of War, in Article 9, has (arguably necessarily) shifted. Strategically, Japan has worked to carefully redefine its military position and capacity over the past few years, while formally remaining defensively pacifist in its outward presentation.

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, Japan’s military spending has increased consistently since 2012. The Ministry of Defence’s current record budget proposal is just under 50% of Japan’s total budget allocation for 2018 at US $46billion dollars, and has been endorsed by the government to achieve a new level of defence capacity against threats that Japan perceives as “unprecedented.”

In addition to a record military budget for upgrades and the purchase of new arsenal, Japan’s Ministry of Defence has worked tirelessly in hand with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to strengthen regional collaborations and diplomatic relations. While Japan’s mid-twentieth century military profile remains a shadow by which many neighbours remain wary, others embrace the opportunity of an alliance that brings along with it the benefit of Japanese economic power.

Japanese military attaches have recently been deployed to regional embassies in the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam. They are tasked with building capacity, providing strategic advice, coordinating joint air and sea training and transferring gifted military equipment and technology. Meanwhile Japan’s primary diplomatic efforts have focused on engaging China and North Korea in thumb wrestle discussions over regional security and order, alongside the US and South Korea.

Japan’s applied strategic pressure using a mix of soft, economic and military power have seemly succeeded in improving regional tensions. Senior Chinese and Japanese officials have recently announced a new era of bilateral economic cooperation between the states, in response to US threats of a protectionist trade war. While immediate military threats issued by North Korea have abated following their confirmation of achieving nuclear capacity.

Although these developments seemingly pave the way for improved regional stability, security and potential cooperation, Japan’s state posture appears to have irrevocably shifted in response to its environment. The question on where they go from this point remains as yet undecided, but the outcome of the new reality is that another East Asian state has achieved nuclear military capacity, and Japan is now one step closer towards renouncing its Renunciation.

These conditions do not bode well for regional or international stability; however, the willingness to pursue open dialogue remains the most powerful strategy with which understandings can be bridged and tensions abated. Japan itself recognises in its Annual Defence of Japan White Paper (2017), that dialogue, transparency of actions and compliance with international norms and laws are the primary means by which regional actors are able to achieve a more secure and peaceful environment.

Carolina Morison