As Japan prepares to host a powerful group of Western democracies next week, Tokyo is pursuing its largest military build-up since World War II. The resurgent Asian power wants to use the summit as an opportunity to discuss threats to global security in the region and beyond.
“I think it’s a unique moment in history, I think it’s a turning point in several ways,” one Japanese official told Newsweek of the context surrounding the Group of Seven (G7) gathering to be held in the Japanese city of Hiroshima from May 19-21.
The meeting will bring Japan together with fellow G7 members Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom, alongside African Union chair Comoros, Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair Indonesia, G20 chair India, as well as Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Vietnam.
But perhaps even more significant than the impressive list of participants is the location itself.
Hiroshima was the first city, and one of only two in history alongside Nagasaki, to be ravaged by atomic warfare as the U.S. brought a fiery end to World War II in August 1945. The Japanese official recalled this “tragic history,” saying the summit now serves as “a reminder that the world and the people have been wise enough not to use nuclear weapons for the 77 years since Hiroshima.”
“We want to keep it that way,” the Japanese official added.
This streak is far from guaranteed, however, and the Japanese official pointed specifically to the conflict in Ukraine, where “Russia’s aggression, actually, in my opinion, it’s worsening, playing the rhetoric of nuclear usage.”
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is saluted by members of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force during an International Fleet Review commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the force at Sagami Bay on November 6, 2022 off Yokosuka, Japan. The following month, Kishida approved three landmark documents, the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Buildup Program, all of which mark a new era for Tokyo’s once-pacifist military doctrine.
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At a time when Moscow has continued to enjoy robust relations with a number of countries across Asia, Tokyo has increasingly voiced its condemnation of the war launched by Russia in Ukraine in February 2022. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio made a surprise trip to Kyiv this past March to demonstrate solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Japanese official described the Russian war effort as “fundamentally against” the concept of an international rules-based order, often touted by the U.S. and its allies as the cornerstone of the global vision championed by Western powers since the end of World War II.
Japan and the U.S. have long overcome their past-century feud to forge a robust alliance, but the world’s deadliest conflict to date lives on for Moscow and Tokyo, as they have yet to sign a peace treaty due to a disputed set of northern Pacific islands under Russian administration.
And while the Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated how clashes over rival Cold War-era perceptions of the world order continue to play out to deadly effect in Europe, Japan has also welcomed a greater U.S. focus closer to home in the Asia-Pacific region.
It was former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo who helped bring the term “Indo-Pacific” to use back in 2007, as he ultimately coined the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) to apply the international rules-border order concept to the region. Both phrases have been readily adopted by the U.S., which renamed U.S. Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, as well as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.
Today, Japan views threats from both China and North Korea in its part of the world as especially existential.
Beijing’s rapid military rise has coincided with an uptick in encounters near a set of disputed islands under Japanese control in the East China Sea, as well as accelerated People’s Liberation Army military exercises and missile tests. Pyongyang has also pressed forward with nuclear-capable assets and has fired missiles near and even over Japanese territory.
“The Indo-Pacific is the very region that leads global growth in the future, but faces various security and economic challenges,” the Japanese official said. “So, we should demonstrate our commitment to FOIP.”
For Japan, demonstrating this commitment has manifested in unprecedented changes to the military doctrine of a country that remained officially pacifist under the U.S. nuclear umbrella for six decades.
The shift began under Abe, who set out to expand the role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and was further carried out by his successor, then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Now, under Kishida, the third leader in more than a decade of Liberal Democratic Party rule, groundbreaking advances were achieved in his approval of three historic documents last December, an event that was praised by the U.S.
“We welcome the release of Japan’s updated strategy documents—the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program—which reflect Japan’s staunch commitment to upholding the international rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement at the time.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping often speaks of “great changes unseen in a century” in the global order, the new Japanese National Security Strategy begins by declaring that “the international community is facing changes defining an era.” The document makes reference to Russia in both its conflict in Ukraine and activities near the disputed border with Japan, but it particularly defines the perceived threat posed by China.
“China has intensified its attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the maritime and air domains including in the East and South China Seas, such as its intrusions into the territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku Islands,” the document reads, “and has expanded and intensified its military activities that affect Japan’s national security in the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and other areas as well.”
“Furthermore,” the Japanese National Security Strategy adds, “China is strengthening its strategic ties with Russia and attempting to challenge the international order.”
Kanehara Nobukatsu, a longtime Japanese diplomat who served as the first-ever deputy secretary-general of the National Security Secretariat among other high-level positions under Abe, argued that it was the mutual responsibility of Tokyo and Washington to maintain order in the region in the face of this precarious geopolitical environment.
“The peace and stability of the Northwest Pacific is the responsibility of Japan and the U.S.,” Kanehara told Newsweek. “The extraordinary military buildup of China, whose economic might has become three times bigger than Japan, and whose military budget has become five times bigger than Japan, and North Korean nuclear weapons development push Japan to cope with them.”
“That is the reason why PM Kishida decided to double the defense budget,” Kanehara added.
Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and soldiers of the British Army take part in the joint field exercise “Vigilant Isles 22” at Soumagahara Maneuvering Ground on November 26, 2022 in Shinto Village, Gunma, Japan. In addition to boosting its own defense budget, Japan has increasingly partnered with other nations across the globe to take part in joint military drills.
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Beijing and Moscow have openly embraced the growing relationship they have defined as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era.” Although China has not expressed support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, » …