Pacifist Japan grows more assertive amid Russia, China adventurism

China's growing unilateralism and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turn Tokyo’s pacifism around

Paratroopers take part in a joint military drill among Japan, the US, Britain and Australia at Narashino exercise field in Funabashi of Chiba prefecture on January 8, 2023.
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Paratroopers take part in a joint military drill among Japan, the US, Britain and Australia at Narashino exercise field in Funabashi of Chiba prefecture on January 8, 2023.
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Pacifist Japan grows more assertive amid Russia, China adventurism

Japan is undergoing a fundamental change internally and externally in its defence and security policy.

Its vision — for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region, known as FOIP — was once largely shrugged off. It was seen as grandiose and a move for the country to punch above its weight when contrived by strategists around former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and announced by him during his short-lived first tenure in the job between 2006 and 2007.

But now, times have changed. It is commonplace for international politicians and scholars to recognise the potential connectivity of the two vast seas of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean — envisioning a vast prosperous area stretching over East Asia and Europe.

This vision of the “Indo-Pacific” is no longer just a buzzword but a reality over which world powers compete for access and dominance. The United States — under both presidents Trump and Biden — joined forces with Japan and fully adopted the issue in their main strategic agenda during Abe’s second and longest administration from 2012-2020.

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Japan's Defense minister Hamada Yasukazu visits the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force Maritime's new destroyer Mogami-class frigates at the JMSDF naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in the south of Tokyo Japan, on Sep. 2022

France, Germany, Holland and the EU as a whole also announced their Indo-Pacific strategy, joining the bandwagon started by initiatives that Japan and the US were jointly promoting.

The United Kingdom — after Brexit and amid its new “Global Britain” policy — surprised the world by secretly coordinating the AUKUS deal in 2021, in which UK and US firmly brought Australia into their camp by agreeing to provide the country with the precious technology and know-how for building nuclear submarines.

Japan’s post-World War II security policy has revolved around two documents: the pacifist constitution set up in 1946 and the US-Japan Security Treaty signed in 1951. The post-war constitution built a rigid pacifist framework for Japan’s defence and security policy for more than 70 years. The US-Japan Security Treaty gave Japan the crucial guarantee for its existence and sovereignty.

Japan’s pacifist past

Japan’s post-war constitution — drafted and promulgated under the strong guidance of occupying US forces — outlines in article 9 entitled "renunciation of war”: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”.

This is a very strong statement of pacifism. It continues: “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised”.

How can such a total renunciation of military power be implemented, maintaining the independence and sovereignty of a nation? How can Japan protect itself? There is no solution given in the constitution, except an almost self-sacrificing declaration of the will to believe in the goodwill of the international community. The preamble declares: “we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world”.

Japan’s post-war constitution, dictated by the occupying US, was effectively a sanction which intended to deter Japan’s re-militarisation and re-expansion on the imperialist agenda. Military equipment and armament of the Japanese Self Defence Forces have been strictly limited to the self-defence purpose and intended to only be effective inside Japanese territory.

The shackle of pacifism may have not been meant to survive for decades, but Japanese people accepted it and took it seriously, making it a cornerstone of its post-war polity.

The other pillar of Japan's defense policy, the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty, was signed in conjunction with the San Francisco Peace Treaty that ended World War II in Asia and the US-led occupation of Japan.

The other pillar of Japan's defense policy, the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty, was signed in conjunction with the San Francisco Peace Treaty that ended World War II in Asia and the US-led occupation of Japan. It allowed the US to maintain military bases on Japan's soil and, in a complicated way, the Treaty, combined with the presence of US military power, complemented the pacifist constitution.

During the Cold War era, Japan kept accommodating US forces to protect itself from the threat of the Soviet power in the Far East. Even after the Cold War, US military presence in Japan remained. It has been justified, on the one hand, as an indispensable part of Japan's self-defence policy, and on the other hand, as "the cap in the bottle" restricting Japan's military resurgence.

China's military rise

China's military rise and ever-growing assertiveness has changed everything. The relative weakness of China in the modern age looks more and more like an anomaly. In the long history of East Asia, China has mostly been a dominant power, with the emperor reigning strong in the region. For a long time, Tokyo's main concern has been to maintain its own sovereignty and identity in the face of a domineering China.

Japan has managed to keep its independence, avoiding being incorporated in the Chinese imperial sphere, helped by the fortunate geographic reality of the Sea of Japan, which separates the archipelago from the continent. Even with this natural barrier between them, Japan has been under the persistent influence of Chinese empires and the nations have intermittently fallen into conflict with each other.

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The submarine USS Annapolis and U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan seen during a South Korea, U.S. and Japan combined trilateral anti-submarine exercise on September 30, 2022 in East sea South Korea.

For much of the modern age, China underwent an unprecedented decline. The stagnation brought on by the Qing Dynasty weakened the once dominant empire. Japan replaced China as the leader of the East Asia, rising as the first modernised-industrialised Asian nation in the 19th century. Even after World War II, modernisation in China was unfolding at a sluggish pace.

The mismanagement and ideological policies by the names of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, launched under the rule of Mao Zedong, dealt a blow to the welfare of the entire Chinese nation. It took decades for Chinese citizens to recover from the damages done by Zedong's obsessional and populist rule.

The first half of the Chinese Communist Party's rule involved one political disaster after another. While the Chinese people suffered, it was a blessing for neighbouring nations in East and Southeast Asia, who for centuries were under the threat of Chinese expansion and intervention. China's own communist ideology and the misgovernance of its own people contained the country which was busy indulging in conspiracies between factions.

After many years of starvation and bloodshed, in 1978, China launched the Reform and Opening Up Policy, which finally put the country on an actual path to modernisation. Following the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the introduction of the Socialist Market Economy in 1992 by Deng Xiaoping finally paved the way for prosperity.

Three decades of rapid economic development helped the Chinese regain their confidence.  It also encouraged citizens to seek compensation for the humiliation which they were put under for the past century. To reclaim a sense of certainty and self-respect is a great achievement everyone applauds, but to assert the so-called "historic rights" of the Imperial Chinese Dynasties over the territory and sea which are under the sovereignty of the nations of the modern times is a different matter.

Today, China's neighbouring nations suspect that Beijing aspires to subjugate "lesser nations" in East and Southeast Asia, in order to regain the lost glory of the empire.

China's growing unilateralism and rampant manifestation of jingoism have turned Japan's pacifism around. For more than half a century after World War II, Japan's security policy has been centred on preventing Japan's military aggression on its neighbours including China.

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US and Japanese militaries in joint military training exercise.

However, Japan is now focused on deterring Chinese aggression, towards Japan itself or towards other nations in the region such as Taiwan, which shares similar liberal and democratic values and lifestyle with Japan.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also accelerated Japan's changing relationship with its post-war posture and place in the world. 

Turning point

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also accelerated Japan's changing relationship with its post-war posture and place in the world. Moscow's act of aggression smashed apart the remnants of the pacifist order and its core reliance on goodwill via "the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world".

It was a moment when the overwhelming majority of the Japanese population shared the consensus that they could not entrust their own security to the mercy of the peace-loving international community, which may not be so peaceful after all. Japanese public opinion surveys had the highest percentages anywhere showing support for Ukraine, surpassing most Western countries, not to mention Middle Eastern and African nations.

The Japanese people's overwhelming support of Ukraine and its strong condemnation of Russia was on the same scale as those in Eastern and Northern European countries which share borders with Russia and have been under Russian threat for centuries. There has been a common saying in greetings by those Eastern and Northern Europeans to Japanese: "We are neighbours, except one country between us". The country they are referring to is obviously Russia.

Usually in the past, Japanese never took the prospect of such a serious diplomatic conversion very seriously at all. Now, it most certainly does.

For Japanese, the sense of seriousness and urgency over the implications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine come — not only from the fact that Japan is also a neighbour of Russia via the Northern territory illegally occupied by Russia at the end of the World War II — but also from the recognition that the consequences of this war will have a significant impact on the future of East Asia. In the eyes of the Japanese, Russian aggression in Ukraine is a precursor of a potential Chinese onslaught in Taiwan and other neighbouring countries including Japan. Today's Vladimir Putin might be the tomorrow's Xi Jinping.

The common cause is that we must not let Russians win. We must teach China a clear lesson: that changing the status quo by force won't pay off. If they dare to challenge it, they must expect a loss of power and status in the international arena and jeopardised rule in their own country.

Japan coordinates with a network of friends, allies and alliances, including Australia and India, as well as NATO and its member countries, to alleviate the heavy burden on the US in its effort to secure the maritime security of the wider Indo-Pacific. 

Building partnerships

While Japan's pacifist past prevents it from becoming militarily strong enough to deter China, its friendships and partnerships with like-minded countries are an asset. While the US tops the list, there are many more countries on it. Japan's role is keeping the increasingly inward-looking Americans in the Pacific. The US military is indispensable for sustaining peace and stability in Asia.

To accomplish this ultimate aim, Japan coordinates with a network of friends, allies and alliances, including Australia and India, as well as NATO and its member countries, to alleviate the heavy burden on the US in its effort to secure the maritime security of the wider Indo-Pacific.

Japan is integral to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Japan and three key allies — the US, Australia and India. The Quad has become the focal point of the joint effort of the free world to avert China's assertive behaviour toward vital sea routes. The aim of these networks is not to incite confrontation but to make countries think twice before taking unilateral actions driven by anger over past humiliation and enamoured by the prospect of glory.

Talking loudly and dictating ideals is not the Japanese way. Coordinating inconspicuously from behind the scenes and diligently building partnerships and policies beneficial to all parties, is what Japan desires and will pursue, inch-by-inch, in order to make the world a better place.

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