Japan seeks a new identity in a world roiled by change

The Asian country, which is hosting the G-7 summit this weekend, is embracing a major shift in its conception of security with a sharp increase in military spending

Fumio Kishida
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during an interview with foreign media on April 20 in Tokyo.Eugene Hoshiko (AP)

In a changing world and with increasing tension between global powers, many countries are in the process of redefining their position and capabilities. For some, this means touching on deep aspects of national identity. This is the case of Japan, the host country of the G-7 summit to be held this weekend. The Asian nation is in the midst of a momentous reconfiguration of its military and economic dimensions, in what probably amounts to the biggest change of tack for post-war Japan, with its strict pacifism and its far-reaching projection in the global markets.

The government headed by Fumio Kishida, a representative of the moderate wing of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party — in power almost uninterruptedly for around seven decades —, is advancing resolutely on both fronts, committed to strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities while simultaneously driving changes in the trade relationship with China. All of this is being done in close coordination with its main ally, the United States, and with the major advanced democracies such as those that make up the G-7 group of industrialized nations, whose relationship with Beijing will be one of the key issues on the summit’s agenda.

On the military front, the current administration’s commitment is unequivocal. The government has launched fiscal plans to double military spending within five years, raising it from 1% of GDP to 2%. In December, the Japanese executive approved a new strategic doctrine that indicates, together with the reasons for the change, the depth and path it intends to follow. The document states that the world is facing “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. Against this backdrop, Japan must protect its own national interests including the peace, security and prosperity of Japan, the safety of its people, and the coexistence and coprosperity of the international community by steadfastly preparing for the worst-case scenario, including fundamental reinforcement of its defense capabilities.”

The text warns that the new strategy “will dramatically transform Japan’s national security policy after the end of WWII from the aspect of its execution.” Adherence to pacifist constitutional principles is reaffirmed, but different action is announced.

Although they do not imply changes to the Constitution, these measures do represent steps that overcome decades of strict containment of military development, one of the founding pillars of the identity of postwar Japan. A leap of this magnitude and speed would have been unthinkable, and certainly extremely controversial until recently. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a clear deterioration in relations between advanced democracies and China have changed the mood, providing the conditions for supporting this shift. In addition to those two major issues, Japan also faces challenges in connection with North Korea and its complicated relationship with Russia over a territorial dispute.

Missile capabilities

Within the new strategy, Japan’s willingness to acquire counter-attack missile capabilities stands out. Until now, under its restrictive interpretation of military development, Japan has limited itself to anti-aircraft defenses. Now, authorities feel it necessary to have weapons that can hit the enemy’s nerve centers in the event of an attack. A greater commitment to the national defense industry has also been announced.

The strategy expresses the desire to have developed sufficient military capabilities by 2027 to assume “primary responsibility” for defense in the event of an invasion of the nation. The date is particularly relevant if we compare it with China’s own plans to complete an upgrade phase of its armed forces by the same year.

The alliance with the U.S. not only remains a basic pillar; steps will be taken to reinforce it further. Tokyo and Washington recently sealed a pact to extend their defense agreements to outer space. Meanwhile, Japan is cultivating ties with the Quad group — which also includes Australia, the U.S. and India — and it is taking small steps towards greater coordination with NATO.

Japan has not delivered weapons to Ukraine, but it joined Western sanctions against Russia after the invasion. Its prime minister made a conspicuous visit to Kyiv while the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was in Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. Tokyo has expressed its view that the Russian invasion is an inadmissible outrage and that the response to it could be a determining factor as a deterrent for possible future offensives in its region — clearly bearing in mind the risk of an attack by Beijing on Taiwan.

It is against this backdrop that Japan seems willing to forge greater cooperation with advanced democracies on a global scale, an undertaking in which the G-7 is a fundamental forum.

Relationship with China

The G-7 plans to address the redefinition of economic relations with China, a matter of global importance. The summit will try to send a united message about how to move forward to reduce the risk associated with the West’s heavy reliance on Chinese manufacturing, as well as warnings to Beijing against what some in the West see as China abusing its economic clout with coercive practices.

On the economic front, Tokyo has taken significant steps beyond the sanctions against Russia. For instance, it has backed the U.S. government’s moves to restrict China’s access to high-end microchips, a key technology for the development of key sectors such as artificial intelligence, next-generation weapons and mass surveillance systems.

The underlying argument is that advanced democracies do not want to pave the way for Beijing to continue down a path that they see as increasingly repressive at home and assertive abroad. A Japanese company, Tokyo Electron, has capabilities that are very difficult to reproduce in the manufacture of essential machinery to produce high-end chips.

It is not the only relevant step in the review of economic relations with China. Despite ongoing Japanese suspicion about developments in Beijing, economic relations with that country are enormous, and many Japanese companies operate on Chinese soil. Prime Minister Kishida has established a Ministry of Economic Security, a symbol of his desire to reconfigure some of Japan’s economic balances in the understanding that they are an inextricable part of national security.

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