Why Japan is seeking military ties beyond its US ally
Before meeting president Joe Biden in Washington D.C., Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida visited Italy, France, Britain and Canada, in part to forge security ties that could help it fend off China, North Korea and Russia.
In June, Japan’s defence minister at the time, Nobuo Kishi, said his country was surrounded by nuclear-armed nations that refused to adhere to international norms of behaviour.
In the wake of Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, Kishida has described security in East Asia as “fragile.”
At the top of Japan’s threat list is China, which it worries could attack Taiwan or nearby Japanese islands. Chinese military activity is intensifying around the East China Sea, including joint air and sea drills with Russia.
At the same time, North Korea has fired missiles into the Sea of Japan, and in October lobbed an intermediate-range missile over Japan for the first time since 2017.
For the past seven decades, Japan, which gave up the right to wage war after its defeat in World War Two, has relied on the United States for protection.
In return for its promise to defend the country, the US gets bases that allow it to maintain a major military presence in East Asia.
Japan hosts 54,000 American troops, hundreds of military aircraft, and dozens of warships led by Washington’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.
Defence Build Up
As China’s military power grows alongside its economy, the regional power balance has shifted in Beijing’s favour.
China’s defence spending overtook Tokyo’s two decades ago and is now more than four times larger.
Encouraged by the United States, Japan in December unveiled its biggest military build up since World War Two, with a commitment to double defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP within five years.
That will include money for missiles with ranges of more than 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) that could strike targets in China.
Beijing, however, is expected to continue expanding its military capabilities, and is likely to field ever more sophisticated weapons.
For that reason, and again with Washington’s support, Japan is seeking new security partners to back it up both militarily and diplomatically.
That effort, for now, has focused on countries that are also strong US allies, including Australia, Britain and France. Tokyo is also looking for closer security ties with India, which since 2004 has met regularly with Japan, the United States and Australia to discuss regional diplomacy as a member of the Quad group.
In London on 11 January, during his tour of fellow G7 countries, Kishida signed a reciprocal access defence agreement with British prime minister Rishi Sunak that will make it easier for the two countries to conduct military drills in each other’s territory.
Japan is chair of the G7 this year and will be host to its leaders in Hiroshima in May.
As Britain tilts more towards Asia, it has sought closer defence ties. In 2021, it sent the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier on a visit to Japan, and announced that it would permanently deploy two warships in Asian waters.
In December, Japan announced it would build a new jet fighter with Britain and Italy, its first major international defence project with a country other than the United States since the end of World War Two.
Since the start of the Ukraine war, Japan’s sometimes-troubled relationship with neighbouring South Korea has also improved, opening up the possibility of closer military cooperation between the two US allies.