Japan looks beyond US alliance for help to deter China military

Japan’s alliance with Washington—complete with its “nuclear umbrella”—remains the cornerstone of its strategy, and US 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.
President Joe Biden walks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci, Pool)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is looking beyond his country’s alliance with the US 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 UK 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 US 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.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida deliver a joint statement at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is starting Monday a weeklong trip to Europe and North America Monday in Paris where he will hold talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on key global issues, including the war in Ukraine. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AP)

Concerns linger in Japan that Biden could be succeeded by a less sympathetic US leader, said Euan Graham, a Singapore-based senior fellow for Indo-Pacific Defense and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Donald Trump, for instance, repeatedly questioned the fairness of the US-Japan alliance during his years as president.

“They can’t rely on the US 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.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni shake hands for photographers at the end of a meeting they held at Chigi Palace government office, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Kishida is in Italy as part of a five-nation tour abroad. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

On each stop of his five-country tour, Kishida explained Japan’s defense expansion and regional security worries. It culminated with a joint US-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 US 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.

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press via AP)

Germany and the Netherlands have, along with Japan, the US and the UK, 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 US, 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.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, speak during a news conference at the State Department, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

‘Unbreakable bond’

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 UK and Italy, rather than with the US. 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 UK 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 under way with the Philippines on deepening defense ties.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pose for a photograph in front of suits of armour in the White Tower after signing a defence agreement at the Tower of London, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The leaders of Britain and Japan are signing a defense agreement on Wednesday that could see troops deployed to each others’ countries. (Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Taiwan question

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 US, 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 UK 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.

Astronaut Ann McClain, U.S Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, JAXA president Yamakawa Hiroshi, Ambassador Tomita Koji, and astronaut Hoshide Akihito speak before signing an agreement on space cooperation at NASA headquarters, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

‘Eggs in the US basket’

Pressure from the US 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 UK also serves as insurance in case US 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 US 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 US conservatives has led Tokyo to hedge its bets in the event of a US departure.

“It’s Japan diversifying the partners with whom it acts,” King said. “It doesn’t want to put all its eggs in the US basket any longer.”

With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak, Kitty Donaldson and Jon Herskovitz.

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