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Japan Defense Build-Up: Implications for ASEAN amid Sino-American Competition

Feb 28, 2023

Earlier this year, Masahiko Kiya, Japan's ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), announced his country’s plans to finalize a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) agreement with the regional organization. For the Japanese diplomat, upgrading from the current ‘strategic partnership status’ is “a matter of course [since] we…think about what the cooperative relationship between Japan and ASEAN should be like, and make it deeper and better."

Practically speaking, the CSP doesn’t fundamentally alter relations with ASEAN, but gaining such diplomatic status is vital for Japan since both China (2021) and the United States (2022) have finalized such agreements in recent years. But for Japan, and more broadly in the realm of international affairs, symbolism matters significantly. As the Japanese diplomat admitted, “[i]t is thought to be strange for us not to have a CSP [with ASEAN], while many others have it already."

Since the end of World War II, which marked the decisive defeat of Imperial Japan, the Northeast Asian country has largely operated under the shadow of America, its sole treaty ally. Constrained by a ‘pacifist’ constitution, which proscribes external projects of military power, Japan has largely relied on ‘soft power,’ most especially development assistance and large-scale investments, to win over a whole host of nations, especially in Southeast Asia.

Thanks to its ‘soft power’ strategy, Japan has managed to become a favored external partner across ASEAN nations. Nevertheless, the Northeast Asian nation seems to be bent on becoming a more ‘normal’ power amid a massive defense build-up and ongoing efforts to relax constitutional restrictions on Japan’s ability to project military power beyond its immediate borders. The move is largely seen as a response to the rise of China as Asia’s preeminent power, but it’s also a reflection of Japan’s growing unease over the future of its alliance with America.

Given its widespread historical atrocities during World War II, however, Japan will have to reassure neighboring states, especially in Southeast Asia, that it will remain a constructive partner for a more inclusive and prosperous regional security architecture in the 21st century. 

A History of Political Violence 

Throughout its modern history, Japan has grappled with bouts of political violence. The Northeast Asian nation embarked on its modernization project following the Boshin War (1868 to 1869), which emphatically ended the Tokugawa era of strategic isolationism and feudalistic political economy. The ensuing Meiji Restoration allowed Japan to strengthen its industrial and military foundations, but it also intensified social tensions with troubling consequences. A wave of political assassinations, at the hand of disgruntled forces, ended the relatively short-lived yet promising era of liberalization, which created the so-called Taicho Democracy (1912-1926).   

In 1921, Prime Minister Takashi Hara was stabbed to death in the Tokyo Station. Within a decade, Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi was assassinated in the same location. Two years later, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated by navy officers, paving the way for a militaristic regime, which placed the nation on a warpath throughout the 1930s. The upshot was a full-blown imperialistic power, which terrorized much of East Asia. The Nanking Massacre (1937) exposed the sheer brutality of Imperial Japan, which committed a string of mass atrocities across Southeast Asia during World War II. 

America’s imposition of a ‘pacifist constitution’ on post-war Japan, however, didn’t end political violence in the country, especially in absence of a systemic purge of far-right elements as well as growing ideological polarization during the Cold War period. If anything, the remains of multiple ‘class-a’ war criminals were enshrined in the country’s most iconic temple. Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who played a key role in consolidating the U.S.-Japan defense alliance in the 1960s, was stabbed six times by an activist. Six decades later, his grandson, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was assassinated by a disgruntled former military officer. 

Reinventing Japan

Japan’s history of political violence and ideological polarization didn’t take place in a vacuum but was instead a response to broader shifts in the geopolitical landscape in Asia. While American Commodore Mathew Perry’s visit to mid-19th century Japan unleashed a civil war, which displaced the traditionalist establishment in Edo, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and U.S. sparked massive protests and political violence in the mid-20th century. 

At the dawn of the 21st century, a new geopolitical landscape forced Japan to reassess its place in the world anew. Against this backdrop, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, embarked on a decade-long quest to transform Japan by relaxing legal restrictions on the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ (JMSDF) ability to project power beyond the country’s immediate borders as well as ramping up defense cooperation with a whole host of likeminded powers across the region. 

Yet, the Japanese leader didn’t manage to garner sufficient support to revise the country’s pacifist constitution, largely thanks to stiff opposition from both allies as well as progressive opposition parties. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, however, has accelerated a major foreign policy shift in Japan. 

Though there is little chance that the Kuril islands dispute will spark a direct clash between Japan and Russia, the ongoing crisis in Europe has reinforced Tokyo’s deepening sense of strategic insecurity vis-à-vis an increasingly uncertain and anarchic global order. At once, Japan is grappling with the rise of China as well as Trumpian isolationism in America. 

A Quest for Strategic Autonomy 

Japan recently announced that it will double its defense spending as a share of its gross domestic product (GDP) over the next five years. Accordingly, the Northeast Asian country is allocating US$315 billion (43 trillion yen) to modernize its armed forces. In its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) document, Japan expressed its desire to develop a “counter-strike capability” despite the country’s constitutional restrictions against the development of offensive military capabilities. 

Meanwhile, Japan is also actively reaching out to other like-minded powers to lessen its military dependence on the U.S. After all, “America First” Trumpian politics, if not Trump himself, could retake the reins of the White House in the near future. This largely explains Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent trips to Europe, where he signed a series of new defense agreements, including a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RCA) with the United Kingdom as well as a next-generation fighter jet project with Italy and the UK under the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP). 

The ultimate goal of Japan is not only to enhance its military capabilities but to also achieve a modicum of strategic autonomy after spending decades in America’s shadows. A more self-reliant and capable Japan will likely be welcomed by some Southeast Asian countries, which have pursued a comprehensive partnership with Tokyo in recent years. 

After all, Japan is now not only a top economic partner and source of infrastructure investments to many ASEAN nations, but it has also emerged as a major defense partner to key regional states such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. For Southeast Asian nations, which suffered immensely during World War II, contemporary Japan has been a largely benign power without hegemonic ambitions of its own. Thus, it’s crucial for Tokyo to not only shun any form of historical revisionism vis-à-vis its past atrocities but also reassure ASEAN partners that its defense build-up won’t provoke further tensions with China. After all, Southeast Asian nations know that growing tensions among major powers will only undermine their own peace and security. 

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