Japan’s Military Role in the Indo-Pacific

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Japan’s Military Role in the Indo-Pacific

Insights from Robert Ward.

Japan’s Military Role in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Hunini

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Robert Ward, Japan chair and director of Geo-economics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is the 282nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify any significant shifts in Japan’s defense policy based on its 2021 annual white paper.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense (JMOD)’s 2021 annual white paper was notable for four main reasons. First was the mention of the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait and the link with Japan’s own security. This was the first such mention in a JMOD white paper. Second was the focus on U.S.-China relations, a clear marker by JMOD that U.S.-China strategic competition is now a key framer for Japanese defense policy.

Third was the highlighting of Japan’s widening security partnerships beyond its immediate region and beyond the U.S., including Canada, France, and the U.K. Fourth was JMOD’s increased focus on the need to bolster Japan’s research and development (R&D) in advanced technologies. In the 2021 English digest of the white paper “research” was mentioned 17 times, compared with just twice in 2020.

It is also worth highlighting the unusual cover of the 2021 JMOD white paper. In a marked departure from the more abstract covers of previous years, this year’s featured a high-energy ink drawing of a Samurai warrior on a charging horse. This was in part JMOD’s attempt to pique the interest of a younger audience to boost recruitment into the military but also to solicit their support for JMOD’s policy initiatives.

How is Tokyo enhancing Japan’s military role in the Indo-Pacific and security leadership in the Quad?

Japan’s regional military role is circumscribed by its “peace constitution” and domestic political constraints. That said, Tokyo has been highly active on multiple fronts trying to balance China’s rise on the one hand and play a greater role in the U.S. alliance on the other. Tokyo has, for example, expanded the range of countries with which it conducts military exercises: witness the joint drill with France in May this year, the first such on Japanese soil. It has also been vocal in its support for the U.K. Carrier Strike Group journey to the region. The number of joint exercises with the U.S. has also risen.

Japan has also focused on capacity building in Southeast Asia, with a view to helping the littoral states boost their law enforcement capabilities: for example, Tokyo’s provision of patrol vessels to the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s coast guards. The sale, announced in 2020, of Japanese radar equipment to the Philippines was also significant as it was Tokyo’s first sale of defense equipment overseas since Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s 2014 relaxation of the Japan’s self-imposed ban on finished defense exports.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad, which includes the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia) has gained momentum, reflecting the increased focus on the grouping of the Biden administration, but also renewed interest from India following the straining of its relations with Beijing. This momentum was, for example, seen in the 2020 Malabar exercise, which included Australia for the first time, along with Japan, the U.S., and India. It has also driven the expansion of the Quad’s activities beyond joint military exercises into areas of economic security, such as supply chains, climate change, and vaccine distribution. For Japan, the Quad is a critical amplifier for its desire to support the rules-based order under its “free and open Indo-Pacific” framework.

Explain the stakes for Tokyo in strengthening Japan-Taiwan relations.

Japan’s tone regarding Taiwan has changed significantly. This reflects Japan’s concerns about China’s attempts to change the status quo in the broader region, as well as Beijing’s territorial needling around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which Japan controls and China claims. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands lie just over 100 kilometers from Taiwan, hence Tokyo’s alarm at Beijing’s increasingly hard line on absorbing Taiwan and the rising risk of a contingency in the area.

In an interview in May with Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo was explicit in linking Japan’s security to that of Taiwan. As we have seen, this was echoed in the 2021 JMOD white paper. In the interview Kishi also indicated his willingness to break the convention of Japan spending only 1 percent of its GDP on defense. Japan is also seeking to “internationalize” the Taiwan issue, to lock multinational support for stability in the area into its broader support for the rules-based order. China, meanwhile, seeks to treat this as a domestic issue.

Assess the Biden administration’s strategic priorities in U.S.-Japan relations.

The Biden administration sees Japan as a key interlocutor in the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide was the first foreign leader to visit Biden after his inauguration. Aside from the U.S.’s perennial push for Japan to “do more” in the bilateral security alliance, the Biden administration has two main strategic priorities in U.S.-Japan relations.

The first is to secure Tokyo’s contribution to the U.S.’s push to bolster economic security. The high-technology component of this is particularly important, given the U.S.’s concerns about the influence of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in global 5G systems and Beijing’s desire to be a technology rule setter.

The second is enhancing cooperation among Quad countries. Notwithstanding the strategic advantages of doing so, the Biden administration is unlikely to take the U.S. into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) mega-trade deal. The Quad is thus a strategically critical tool for U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Identify the top three geopolitical risks facing Japan as U.S.-China rivalry escalates.

The top three geopolitical risks facing Japan all relate to China. Most immediately, Tokyo will be concerned about the recent intensity of Chinese probing of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, particularly given the new Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) Law, which allows the CCG to use weapons against foreign vessels even in waters only claimed by Beijing. Second, and related to the first, is Tokyo’s concern about a Taiwan contingency, both because of its regional geopolitical implications, but also because of the uncertainty of how Japan would respond given its constitutional and legal constraints.

Third is China’s attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea (SCS). There are many examples of this, including Beijing’s refusal to accept international law, which does not recognize its large “nine-dash line” claim in the SCS, the fortification and expansion of its islands in the sea, and the grey zone and coercive activities of its vast fishing fleet in the region. Instability in the SCS is a direct threat to the viability of Japan’s sea lanes of communication as well as to Japan’s allies in the area.