Japan looks beyond US alliance for help to deter China military
Bloomberg January 16, 2023
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is looking beyond his country's alliance with the U.S. to deter China, bolstering security ties with democracies from Australia to Europe.
On his tour of Group of Seven countries last week, which came after the biggest overhaul of Japan's security policy since World War II, Kishida told French President Emmanuel Macron that the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific were indivisible. He signed a deal on mutual troop access with U.K. premier Rishi Sunak and agreed with Italian leader Giorgia Meloni to upgrade defense ties.
Japan's alliance with Washington — complete with its "nuclear umbrella" — remains the cornerstone of its strategy, and U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed the country's more robust security strategy in a meeting with Kishida at the White House on Friday. Yet Japan's deepening unease about the dangers in its neighborhood has prompted a fresh push to build a bulwark of other partnerships.
Concerns linger in Japan that Biden could be succeeded by a less sympathetic U.S. leader, said Euan Graham, a Singapore-based senior fellow for Indo-Pacific Defence and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Donald Trump, for instance, repeatedly questioned the fairness of the U.S.-Japan alliance during his years as president.
"They can't rely on the U.S. entirely, both for political reasons and in simple scale terms," Graham said. "They need extra help, and that's where Canada and the other G-7 countries come into play."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, North Korea's growing missile prowess and rising tensions around Taiwan — including Chinese military exercises that involved lobbing missiles into waters near Japan — have all contributed to its concerns. Last year Kishida became the first Japanese prime minister to attend a NATO summit.
On each stop of his five-country tour, Kishida explained Japan's defense expansion and regional security worries. It culminated with a joint U.S.-Japan statement that blamed China and North Korea for making it necessary to ramp up the nation's military capability.
"In managing relations with China, it is absolutely necessary for Japan, the U.S. and Europe to work together as one," Kishida said in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington on Friday.
China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin criticized the cooperation between Tokyo and Washington. "Japan and the U.S., colluding with each other, have staged a farce to smear China's image, interfere in China's internal affairs and suppress China's development," Wang said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Monday.
European allies are increasingly conscious of the growing security threat China poses in a variety of arenas, particularly in the long-term, and are taking steps to address that. Macron highlighted security as one area where they can increase cooperation with Japan when he met Kishida last week, as they looked to a new round of joint military exercises.
Germany and the Netherlands have, along with Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., sent frigates to sail in the South China Sea in recent years as a way to counter China's claims there and underscore the importance of freedom of navigation.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes the U.S., Canada and European members, for the first time mentioned China in its 2022 Strategic Concept, laying out the alliance's priorities for the coming decade. NATO leaders agreed at their summit last June, also attended by Asia-Pacific partners like Japan and Australia, that China posed a "systemic challenge" and warned about a deepening strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow.
Eagerness to get involved with a wider range of partners manifested itself in last year's decision to work on a next-generation fighter jet with the U.K. and Italy, rather than with the U.S. Japan is set to negotiate an information-security agreement with Canada as part of a joint action plan sealed last year, which includes joint military exercises and defense exchanges.
Japan's newfound openness to such ideas has met with particular enthusiasm from London.
"Japan is our closest security partner in Asia and the U.K. is Japan's closest security partner in Europe," Sunak said in an op-ed published in Nikkei Asia. "Between us is an unbreakable bond that reaches halfway around the world."
Britain has and is moving toward what it calls an Indo-Pacific tilt in its foreign relations and is in the middle of updating its strategic foreign affairs goals.
Closer to home, talks are also underway with the Philippines on deepening defense ties.
None of this obliges any of Japan's partners to come to its aid in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, or the East China Sea islands disputed between Tokyo and Beijing, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Unlike the U.S., other G-7 partners have made no treaty pledges to help defend Japan.
"In the event of a contingency around Taiwan or the Senkaku, I don't think they are expecting the U.K. or France to come to the Indo-Pacific," said Kyoko Hatakeyama, a professor of international studies at the University of Niigata Prefecture. Still, she added, the effect Japan is seeking is deterrence.
Japan's strategy with G-7 members appears to be following its engagement with Australia. Ties with Canberra progressed to a defense agreement last year in which the two countries pledge to increase interoperability between their forces.
Pressure from the U.S. could prompt Australia and other countries to offer some degree of assistance in the event of a Taiwan contingency, said Graham from IISS. But he warned that Japan's dubbing of Australia a "quasi ally" might be misleading.
"The whole point about alliances is that they are definitive," he said. "It's a black and white commitment — we will be there for you. I don't think the Australians are going to offer that."
Japan's outreach to partners like Australia and the U.K. also serves as insurance in case U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific begins to fade, according to Amy King, associate professor at the Australian National University's Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.
Until recently, the U.S. has been by far the largest military presence in Asia, providing protection for its allies including Japan. However, concerns over the rise of "America First" rhetoric among U.S. conservatives has led Tokyo to hedge its bets in the event of a U.S. departure.
"It's Japan diversifying the partners with whom it acts," King said. "It doesn't want to put all its eggs in the U.S. basket any longer."
Bloomberg's Natalia Drozdiak, Kitty Donaldson, Jon Herskovitz and Philip Glamann contributed to this report.