Japan Is Getting Real on Security After Ukraine

A flurry of moves is positioning Tokyo at the center of anti-China alliances.

By , a Tokyo-based journalist.
(From left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
(From left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
(From left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend the Quad Fellowship Founding Celebration event in Tokyo on May 24. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

TOKYO—Next week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will become the first Japanese leader ever to take part in a NATO summit meeting. His attendance in Madrid after the annual meeting of the G-7 countries caps a whirlwind of diplomatic and security-related events that have put the country at the forefront of a coalition that is designed in everything but name to rein in China.

Kishida, a compromise choice in ruling party elections last September, initially looked like he might be another short-termer, like every Japanese prime minister since 2006 save for Shinzo Abe. But Kishida has hit the ground running. He successfully captained the summit of the Quad nations of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, getting the results he wanted from U.S. President Joe Biden and keeping the headstrong Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the fold. He has shored up relations with Southeast Asia, with trips to Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand and the keynote address at the annual IISS Shangri-La conference on security in Singapore. In a high-profile European visit in May, he highlighted Japan’s sanctions on Russia, met with the leaders of Germany and Italy, and teed up a new defense pact with Britain. All the while he was signing up support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Japan’s catchphrase for keeping China from making good on its ambitious claims to ownership of the islands, and their associated maritime zones, in the South China and East China seas.

“Japan will work together with other nations and take actions with resolute determination so that we would not be sending out the wrong message to the international community; so that using force to unilaterally change the status quo shall never be repeated,” Kishida said in a London speech in May as part of his global travels. The subject was ostensibly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the wording made clear that he also had the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where Japan has long-standing ties, in mind.

TOKYO—Next week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will become the first Japanese leader ever to take part in a NATO summit meeting. His attendance in Madrid after the annual meeting of the G-7 countries caps a whirlwind of diplomatic and security-related events that have put the country at the forefront of a coalition that is designed in everything but name to rein in China.

Kishida, a compromise choice in ruling party elections last September, initially looked like he might be another short-termer, like every Japanese prime minister since 2006 save for Shinzo Abe. But Kishida has hit the ground running. He successfully captained the summit of the Quad nations of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, getting the results he wanted from U.S. President Joe Biden and keeping the headstrong Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the fold. He has shored up relations with Southeast Asia, with trips to Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand and the keynote address at the annual IISS Shangri-La conference on security in Singapore. In a high-profile European visit in May, he highlighted Japan’s sanctions on Russia, met with the leaders of Germany and Italy, and teed up a new defense pact with Britain. All the while he was signing up support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Japan’s catchphrase for keeping China from making good on its ambitious claims to ownership of the islands, and their associated maritime zones, in the South China and East China seas.

“Japan will work together with other nations and take actions with resolute determination so that we would not be sending out the wrong message to the international community; so that using force to unilaterally change the status quo shall never be repeated,” Kishida said in a London speech in May as part of his global travels. The subject was ostensibly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the wording made clear that he also had the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where Japan has long-standing ties, in mind.

“Things are going well on the geopolitical front for Japan. It’s fascinating to see Japan becoming a mainstream strategic partner for a lot of countries,” said Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese foreign policy at Kanagawa University in Yokohama, Japan.

Kishida’s success in active lobbying for what he likes to call “realism diplomacy for a new era” has been helped by the fact that he is a known figure on the global stage after his five years as foreign minister in the Abe administration, the longest anyone has held that office in the post-World War II era. “He knows the important people and he knows how Japan is viewed,” Wallace said.

But Kishida has gotten a boost from a pretty large dose of good luck, especially in his timing. Ukraine, missteps by China on severe COVID-19 lockdowns amid an already weakening economy, plus a global supply chain crisis have all helped in bolstering Japan’s policies.

In some respects, Kishida’s policies are nothing new, and much of the credit (or blame) for starting Japan down the road of a higher regional security profile goes to the more openly nationalistic Abe, who originally promoted a free and open Indo-Pacific in a meeting with African leaders in 2016. Freed from the strictures of office, Abe has since become more direct in his public speeches, saying in December 2021 that an attack on Taiwan by China would represent a danger to Japan, and more recently urging the U.S. to end the policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would intervene militarily in such a situation.

While Abe has sounded the alarm bell, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that sent it ringing at full volume. Ever since the invasion, there has been a wealth of commentaries over what this could mean for China and Taiwan, leading to the not very helpful conclusion that it makes an invasion by Beijing either more likely or less likely. But Taiwan aside, Russia’s invasion, after years of territorial aggrandizement, has put renewed attention on China’s encroachments at sea. Reefs that have been turned into small islands over the past nine years are now openly militarized, in sharp contrast to Beijing’s initial promises. Oil exploration rigs are popping up in disputed waters, and a virtual fleet of fishing boats have become a surrogate navy.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also embarked on an ill-considered program of aggressive diplomatic PR. These so-called wolf warriors state, on Twitter and in official meetings, that actions by Beijing are invariably perfect and anyone who opposes any action is a tool of Washington or a hapless stooge. This aggressive tone is reminiscent of the Cold War days of Radio Moscow or the manic tone of official media in North Korea (where there is no other kind). This might play well at home, but on the global stage it has alienated audiences who might otherwise be sympathetic. It’s also a sign of geographical weakness; like a company boasting of its solvency, a power that declares itself to be great probably isn’t.

That said, China is certainly not toothless, and it has backed up its displeasure with direct and costly action to its neighbors in recent years. When South Korea decided to deploy advanced U.S. THAAD missiles in 2016, Beijing imposed economic sanctions at an estimated cost of more than $7 billion to the export-dependent South Korean economy. (China accounts for over 25 percent of South Korean exports.) Similarly, China came up with a laundry list of complaints against Australia on everything from the South China Sea to “an unfriendly or antagonistic report on China by media.” It imposed various trade restrictions on Australian beef, wine, and other products, although it exempted the iron ore needed by China’s steel plants.

But the risk of any similar action against Japan today seems low. A nation that previously seemed to be making inroads around the world is now playing defense on numerous fronts. China cannot be pleased that more nations are signing up for the free and open Indo-Pacific idea being promoted by Kishida. Even the somewhat vague U.S. program for economic cooperation in Asia, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, was quickly signed onto by 13 nations after its launch in late May.

Domestically, Xi is facing increasingly serious economic headwinds, caused in part by the continued problems for the global supply chain as well as a zero-COVID policy that seems politically irreversible for the near future. It’s hardly the best of times to pick a trade war with the country that supplies many of the most sophisticated industrial inputs, ranging from complex machine tools to the chemicals needed to make smartphone panels.

Another strong point for Japan has been its ability to counter Chinese influence in the increasingly prosperous nations of Southeast Asia. With the calling card of offering the biggest market in the world for many products, China has undoubtedly made inroads, but it cannot rest on its laurels. Japan, an early player as such economies as Indonesia and Thailand began to grow, has kept a consistent and patient policy of engagement. This has angered human rights activists who see Japan as promoting democracy and freedom in theory but continuing to do business with the authoritarian governments in countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia. It can be argued that this is the only way to stop the countries from sliding even further toward China, but this does little to put actions behind Japan’s verbal commitment to democracy. As Stephen M. Walt argued recently in Foreign Policy, realism in foreign affairs seldom wins plaudits.

But the approach comes in handy when you need friends. According to one U.S. official, Japan’s high level of respect among Southeast Asian nations was a critical factor in getting them on board for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. A 2020 survey of 1,032 foreign-policy and business leaders in Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries found Japan was the most trusted nation in Asia at 67 percent. China garnered 17 percent.

And, ironically for a country taking on the Chinese Communist Party, Japan’s ability to implement policy also benefits from its long-term perspective, due in no small part to the stability of Liberal Democratic Party rule after World War II. It is one of the paradoxes of Japan that while it promotes democracy and has an independent judiciary, free speech, and elections, it nevertheless has ended up a de facto one-party state for all but a handful of years—albeit a democratic one. Much of this is because of a cautious approach to rule where there is a clear need to obtain “understanding” before implementing a new policy.

As heir to this tradition, Kishida often calls himself a good listener, and that appears to be working with the voters. His cabinet’s approval ratings are around 60 percent in various media surveys, with more than 70 percent approving of his tougher policies on Russia and China. He’s equally popular with allies—especially in Australia and the United States.

Kishida’s next task is to win support for increased defense spending, which trails other big nations at around 1 percent of annual GDP (well below the NATO target of double that level). “Even if the United States and Japan work closely together, we cannot keep competing with China,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Therefore, we are trying to draw new partners into this coalition, including India and Australia. If we can increase our defense budget, we may not be able to outdo China, but we may be able to compete with China fairly effectively.”

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based journalist who has been a contributor to Foreign Policy since 2015. He has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years, working at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He is also the co-author of a 2021 book on the Carlos Ghosn affair and its impact on Japan.

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