For Japan, ‘Ukraine is the Future of Asia’

Tokyo has abandoned decades of passivity and become a global strategic actor.

Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
C. Raja Mohan
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky  shake hands during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 21.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 21.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 21. Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

As much of the world was focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Moscow last month, it was lost to many observers that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was in Kyiv at the same time on an equally consequential visit. Making an unannounced trip to see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kishida offered Japan’s solid support.

As much of the world was focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Moscow last month, it was lost to many observers that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was in Kyiv at the same time on an equally consequential visit. Making an unannounced trip to see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kishida offered Japan’s solid support.

Three themes immediately stood out from the simultaneous presence of Xi in Moscow and Kishida in Kyiv. First, it pointed to East Asia’s active and growing role in shaping European security, perhaps for the first time since the medieval Mongol invasions. If China joins Iran in more actively supporting Russia in Ukraine, it would have profound implications for the course of the war—and the map of Eastern Europe. South Korea has emerged as a major weapons supplier to Poland, which is transforming into NATO’s most important military frontline state. The presence of the so-called AP4 (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea) at NATO meetings is becoming routine.

Second, Kishida underlined that China’s view of the war in Ukraine is not necessarily the view in the rest of Asia.

And third, the parallel visits exposed the hollowness of Xi’s claims to be a neutral peacemaker in Ukraine. Even as some European leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, have hailed Xi as Europe’s savior who can mediate an end to Russia’s war, Kishida’s meeting with Zelensky served to highlight the one-sided nature of Beijing’s so-called peace initiative in Ukraine.

Traveling to Ukraine seems to have given a bounce to Kishida’s sagging ratings at home, but it also underlines the definitive break from decades of Japanese passivity on the world stage. Although it was perhaps coincidental that Kishida found himself in Kyiv at the same moment that Xi was in Moscow, his trip to Ukraine illustrated Japan’s emergence as a geopolitical actor to be reckoned with.

To be sure, the remaking of Japan as a key power in the security sphere began under the late Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister who undertook the onerous task of getting Japan to rethink its role in Asia and the world and shake off the political shackles of the past. Abe made much progress on revamping Japan’s national security policies during his two tenures as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007 and from 2012 to 2020.

But few expected Kishida to build on Abe’s strategic legacy. Abe’s shoes were big to fill, and Kishida was widely viewed as weak. The Ukraine crisis, however, offered a huge opportunity that Kishida seized with both hands to radically reorient Japan. If Abe had to struggle to get his ideas accepted by the political class, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has heightened popular awareness of the fundamental changes in Japan’s security environment. That a major power armed with nuclear weapons could invade a neighbor with impunity, seeking to unilaterally change borders by force, shook Japan to the core. Kishida’s plans to double defense expenditure over the next five years; modernize the military to better deter North Korea, Russia, and China; and take on a larger regional security role have thus found less resistance.

Long viewed as passive and pacifist, Japanese foreign policy seemed to produce few strategic ideas of its own. Tokyo was happy to follow Washington’s lead while avoiding challenging Beijing. Over the last decade and a half, however, Japan has begun to develop new geopolitical approaches, promote them, and get them accepted by allies and partners.

None of Japan’s foreign-policy innovations are more important than the invention of “Indo-Pacific” as a geostrategic concept and the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad), both of which are now integral to Asian geopolitics. Abe first outlined both ideas in an address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007. It was one thing to frame new ideas in a speech—and entirely another to get others to see their merit.

The initial international response to both ideas was skepticism among Japan’s friends and outright hostility from Beijing. But Japan’s sheer persistence and a rising China’s growing assertiveness saw Tokyo’s Quad partners—Australia, India, and the United States—come around to accepting Abe’s ideas.

In late March, Kishida also traveled to India to offer an upgraded vision for the Indo-Pacific that outlined a range of ideas to strengthen the region’s security, and he presented a more ambitious Japanese contribution to realizing it. This includes joint military training, and cooperation on maritime security.

A third important innovation from Japan was to transcend the “hub and spokes” system that defined the postwar U.S.-led security order in Asia. While Japan attaches great significance to its bilateral alliance with the United States, it has recognized the importance of directly connecting the spokes. Japanese efforts to build bilateral strategic partnerships with other countries in the region complement Tokyo’s alliance with Washington and deepen the basis for regional security amid growing Chinese military power and diplomatic assertiveness, with its destabilizing impact on the region. The strongest of these new regional relationships are with Quad partners Australia and India, but ties to South Korea and the Philippines are strengthening as well.

A key goal of Japan’s regional strategy is to strengthen the defense infrastructure and capabilities of Indo-Pacific states. If the Abe administration sought to give Japan’s substantial overseas development assistance a strategic character, Kishida is now developing a framework for overseas security assistance. These new Japanese initiatives have full U.S. support, with Washington eager to see its allies and friends become stronger by collaborating with each other and making themselves more capable in coping with the challenge from Beijing.

Just as important as Japan’s role in developing a new security architecture for Asia are Tokyo’s efforts to tie Europe to the Asian security order. Similar to the way Abe’s Indo-Pacific concept imagined the strategic unity between the Indian and Pacific oceans, he also recognized the deep interconnection between security in Europe and Asia.

It was nearly five years ago that Abe was inviting Britain and France, Western Europe’s leading military powers, to contribute to Asian security. Abe understood that isolationist pressures on U.S. foreign policy—which became so visible during the presidency of Donald Trump—meant that Asia couldn’t rely solely on the United States for its future security. Abe looked beyond the region for further partners to manage Indo-Pacific security challenges.

Since then, many European powers, including France, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, have outlined Indo-Pacific strategies. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy issued by the Biden administration also underlines the need for allies and partners in Europe and Asia to work together.

One of Abe’s last acts before his life was cut short by an assassin was to raise the question of Washington’s extended deterrence in Asia and to call for a debate on deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in the region. So far, Kishida has rejected nuclear sharing with the United States, and he has repeated the Japanese commitment to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. But the issue of a U.S. nuclear security commitment to Asia is unlikely to go away as China continues to modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal.

Underlying Japan’s new security vision is a clear recognition of the Chinese threat to Asia. Unlike many of its European peers who were or still are unwilling to come to terms with Russia’s or China’s aggressively revisionist ambitions, Tokyo has not let its massive economic exposure to Beijing get in the way of dealing with it. Proximity surely helped Tokyo perceive the problem clearly, but Japan had to overcome the inevitable constraints presented by the dangers of sharing a contested maritime frontier with China.

Equally significant has been Japan’s decision to highlight the implications of Russian aggression against Ukraine. In arguing that “Ukraine is the future of Asia,” Kishida has pressed Japan and Asia to see the implications of a nuclear-armed power unilaterally changing the territorial status quo.

With its increasingly clear-eyed security policies, Japan is reminding the West—especially Europe, which had become geopolitically complacent in the decades after the Cold War—that coping with the challenges presented by China and Russia demands greater discipline. This includes a much needed strategic outreach to the global south, where Kishida has called on other G-7 countries to do more to address developing countries’ own concerns and priorities instead of projecting Western policies and preaching to them about how to run their affairs.

As it rises to become a major geopolitical actor in Asia and the world, Japan has become the unlikely actor persuading the West to rethink its strategic assumptions. As France’s Macron and other European leaders struggle to come to terms with the challenges presented by Russia and China, Japan has injected a much-needed sense of clarity to the strategic discourse in Europe and Asia.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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