Japan strikes new security deals with focus on China

Space defense, US troop deployments and a “very important” deal with Britain: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida collects more than souvenirs on his whirlwind diplomatic tour.

Analysts said defense dominated his agenda this week in meetings with G7 allies in Europe and North America, as the Japanese leader seeks to bring friends closer in the face of mounting pressure from China.

Amy King, associate professor at the Center for Strategic and Defense Studies at the Australian National University, told AFP that Japan wanted to normalize its “superpower role”.

It seeks “the kinds of strategic partnerships and defense relations that are perfectly normal for other nations, but were largely off-limits to Japan” due to its post-war pacifist constitution.

Kishida’s talks also touched on everything else from trade to climate issues, a sign that he is trying to expand Tokyo’s relations with its allies.

King said that Japan “insures itself against the decline of the ability of the United States, and works to attract other major democracies to Asia.”

The government unveiled major defense reform in December, including doubling spending to 2% of GDP by 2027 and designating China as the “biggest strategic challenge ever” to Japan’s security.

Kishida’s diplomatic efforts “reflect that Japan’s national defense cannot be undertaken by Japan alone,” said Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University who studies crisis management.

“In the past, Japan was able to separate economics and politics,” and would do business with countries like China and Russia while enjoying the security protection of its alliance with the United States.

But he said the deepening of friction between democratic and authoritarian countries, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, means “we can’t do that anymore”.

Also read: Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy to develop the next generation of combat aircraft

Japan is hosting the G7 this year and Kishida is visiting all of the bloc’s members except Germany on a trip that culminated in talks in Washington on Friday with US President Joe Biden.

The US and Japanese secretaries of state and defense have already agreed to extend the mutual defense treaty between the two countries to include space, and have announced the deployment of a more flexible US naval unit on Japanese soil.

– ‘Late edit’ –

In Britain, Kishida signed an agreement creating a legal basis for both sides to station forces on each other’s territory.

Japan concluded a similar agreement with Australia last year and is in discussions about an agreement with the Philippines.

Last year, Tokyo also agreed to develop next-generation fighter jets with Britain and Italy, and to increase intelligence sharing and defense cooperation with Australia.

Beijing watched the developments with some alarm, warning Japan last year not to “deviate” from bilateral relations.

But analysts say Tokyo is treading carefully to avoid directly challenging its powerful neighbour.

“Expanding its military network is definitely an effective way to confront or try to deter China,” said Daisuke Kawai, a researcher at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Also read: Japan is considering modernizing long-range missiles due to the threat from China

But since the deals do not amount to full alliances with mutual defense commitments, they must remain “acceptable for the time being” for Beijing, Kawai said.

While some have interpreted the reform of Japan’s defense policy and spending as a break with the past, others see it as a more subtle shift.

These moves “will at least complicate Chinese calculations about how far they can push the envelope for their activities in the region,” said Yi Kwang-hing, a professor of international security at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

But they “still do not significantly tip the regional military balance vis-à-vis China.”

Japan’s population supports the transition

Japan’s post-war constitution forbids war, and the government’s plan to acquire missiles that could hit enemy launch sites has sparked debate about the limits of the legal framework.

But opinion polls indicate that public opinion in Japan largely supports this shift, even if opinion on how to pay for it is divided, and some observers feel it is long overdue.

“These deterrence efforts should not be seen as destabilizing or provocative,” said Ewan Graham, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Rather, they represent a belated adjustment of the balance of power that has shifted dramatically in favor of these authoritarian competitors to the status quo.”

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