Ever since World War II ended, Japan has been passing the buck.
Sheltered by the postwar U.S. security alliance, Japan provided bases for American forces but kept its own military spending remarkably low for a country of its size and wealth, resisting American urging to share more of the burden.
China makes that no longer tenable. Its ambitions and expanding global influence threaten Japanese territory and an international order — based on democracy, free trade and respect for human rights — in which Japan plays a leading role.
Much is made of U.S. cultural and historical ties to Europe. But Japan is the linchpin of today’s paramount geopolitical competition — China’s push for regional dominance of East Asia — and it is America’s most essential ally. As leaders of Group of 7 countries meet in Hiroshima this week with China high on the agenda, Japan and its allies must recognize that Japan is critical to successfully managing the Chinese challenge and needs to finally get off the sidelines.
The Cold War centered on a geopolitical competition for the dominance of Europe. The United States and NATO mobilized massive military power to deter an invasion of West Germany by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. By contrast, Japan stayed in the background. Its postwar Constitution — written primarily by U.S. occupation officials — forbade maintaining “land, sea and air forces.” This suited leaders in Tokyo who sought to avoid divisive political debates about military spending (which was capped at 1 percent of G.D.P. for decades), and a Japanese public still traumatized by defeat in World War II. It also reassured Asian nations that Japan would not again embark on overseas aggression.
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As the United States later realized Japan’s value as a Cold War ally, it encouraged Tokyo to be more proactive. But Japanese leaders feared getting dragged into what they saw as America’s far-flung adventures — or worse, a superpower war. In 1960, after a U-2 spy plane flown by the American pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to attack air bases that hosted such planes. Protests broke out in Tokyo, calling for an end to the U.S. alliance. The alliance endured, but Japanese leaders continued to resist American calls for participation in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
China, North Korea and a more belligerent Russia have prompted Japan to reassess. Over the years Japanese governments have reinterpreted the pacifist Constitution to increase the military’s capabilities and its role within the alliance. Today, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces field highly sophisticated maritime capabilities and, while Japan still does not participate directly in overseas military operations, it sends peacekeepers to U.N. missions, supported U.S. naval forces in the Indian Ocean during the invasion of Afghanistan and has provided nonlethal aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
In December, Japan’s cabinet approved plans to double military spending to 2 percent of G.D.P. over the next five years, which, if realized, would make it the world’s third-largest spender on defense after the United States and China, and has announced plans to acquire U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles. Rising numbers of Japanese support stronger military forces.
These changes have been rightly acknowledged as a remarkable departure for Japan. But — as Germany’s present-day backtracking on its own pledges to increase military spending illustrate — there is no guarantee that they will materialize. Even if they do, they may not be enough.
During the Cold War, America’s economy was far stronger than the Soviet Union’s, and Japan grew to be the world’s second-largest economy. While the United States and Japan performed at the technological cutting-edge, the Soviets lagged after the dawn of the information age.
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But China today is far more formidable. The world’s second-largest economy, China has increased its military spending tenfold since 1995. It now fields the world’s largest navy in number of vessels, the largest coast guard and has drastically increased its missile forces. China is using its military and coast guard to menace Taiwan — which Japan views as critical for its own security — and intimidate neighboring countries over disputed territories, including Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea.
One could argue that America’s prodigious military strength is sufficient to meet the Chinese challenge. But an ambitious global strategy already makes many claims on U.S. military forces. Despite repeated promises to “pivot” to Asia, Washington’s attention remains divided: It has been fighting a proxy war in Europe for more than a year, and a war against Iran becomes more of a threat if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons.
Japan has a choice to make. It could continue to pass the buck, hoping that the United States will catch it. It could end its U.S. alliance to pursue neutrality or appease China. But either option is risky for a country on the frontline. If Japanese leaders are indeed committed to resisting Chinese dominance of Asia, they must view their country as the equivalent of West Germany during the Cold War: Highly threatened, at the center of geopolitical competition and contributing significantly to its own defense. Yet Japan’s new plans for military spending remain modest: Even after doubling its spending, Japan would still fall below the global average of 2.2 percent of G.D.P. Deterring a regional superpower such as China will likely require greater effort.
Observers often warn that a militarily stronger Japan triggers unease in a region where memories of its wartime violence persist and where an arms race is already underway. But outside of China and North Korea, many countries in the region and beyond do not fear a larger Japanese security role; security partners like India and Australia have encouraged it. Many East Asian countries view Japan favorably based on close ties in trade, technology, tourism and education; Tokyo’s leadership in regional institutions and economic development; and its Covid-related assistance. Surveys show that Japan is the major power that is most trusted among Southeast Asian countries, and Japan has increased security cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Even South Korea, where historical resentment of Japan persists, is pursuing its closest security cooperation with Japan in decades, propelled by the perception of shared threats from China and North Korea.
The balance of power in Asia is shifting toward China. This is not a far-off threat that Japan can avoid. This is Japan’s fight.
Jennifer Lind (@profLind) is associate professor of government at Dartmouth, a faculty associate at the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard University and an associate fellow at Chatham House.“