Japan goes all-in with the West after Russia invades Ukraine, but big strategic choices remain

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Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Japan “crossed the Rubicon” after Russia invaded Ukraine. Unlike eight years ago when Russia annexed Crimea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government quickly joined economic and financial sanctions against Russia to Western countries. Japan has also provided financial, humanitarian and even material support to Ukraine despite Russia’s threat of blackmail into cutting off its energy supplies.

Japan’s political leaders have repeatedly stressed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of international law and that Japan should champion the maintenance of a “rules-based” international order. For the first time, the term “international order” appeared repeatedly in Japanese foreign policy statements. The Japanese generally supported Kishida’s government’s activism in foreign and security policy, including supporting an increase in the defense budget.

Still, there are problems and uncertainties about Japan’s future. Can Japan face “a war on three fronts” against China, North Korea and Russia? How can Japan manage its relationship with the United States and China at a time of great power competition and increasing risk of military conflict, such as the Taiwan Strait, when Japan’s economic security is so highly linked to China in East Asia? How can it best deal with the emerging and existential global problems of inflation, energy shortages, global warming and the crisis of the nuclear non-proliferation regime?

These questions are examined in the new issue of East Asia Quarterly Forumedited by Tomohiko Satake, launched online today and online at the Japan Update conference on September 7.

Kishida’s government is due to release a comprehensive strategic review of its security policy and a new national security strategy by the end of the year. It will be the first update since Japan released its first-ever national security strategy in 2013 under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Given how Kishida has conducted his foreign and security policy so far and how he came to power, in what direction can we expect him to steer Japanese security policy? ?

Kishida has positioned himself as a consensus builder. It was a deliberate fix and a way to stand out in the public eye from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who positioned himself one step ahead of the public and then sought to train. At the same time, Kishida came to power relying on Abe’s support as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction, the Seiwakai.

Even in the wake of Abe’s shock assassination in July, since the balance of factional power within the LDP has shifted over the past two decades, it is with the conservative nationalist Seiwakai that Kishida and his faction ostensibly liberal Kochikai must forge a consensus. This narrows Kishida’s options in formulating his security strategy.

In our first feature article this week, Yoshihide Soeya explains that “Abe has divided Japanese politics and society more than any other leader in recent history.” He had an unwavering devotion to a national conservative agenda, including patriotic education, constitutional revision, and historical revisionism.

This divisive legacy, Soeya explains, continues to affect Kishida’s government today. “Kishida’s decision to honor Abe with a state funeral was met with very mixed public feelings. According to polls conducted by the Kyodo Press53.3% opposed the decision while 45.1% approved it. Nikkei‘Polls were only marginally more favorable with 47% against a state funeral and 43% in favour’.

In an effort to reach a consensus, Kishida will rely on a few different elements.

First, Kishida will continue to implement particular elements of Abe’s policy where there is consensus. This includes maintaining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the Quad as key pillars of Japanese foreign and security policy.

On the issue of constitutional review, Kishida will likely continue to support the idea of ​​keeping the Seiwakai on his side. But he is unlikely to spend much of his limited political capital on anything other than moderate changes with broad public support.

As Soeya suggests, Kishida may also seek to emphasize the cooperative aspects of Abe’s overall approach to China. As of 2018, ‘Abe himself changed his approach to China. In October 2018, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing and agreed that bilateral relations were now on track. Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also agreed that Japan and China will promote bilateral and regional economic cooperation. In 2019, Abe officially invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan as a state guest in the spring of 2020, a visit which has so far not been realized due to COVID-19.

2022 being the 50th anniversary of Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization, it would be time to do so.

The changing nature of the international security environment means that Kishida is likely “to invest much more in its military capabilities and consider how to retaliate against an increasingly hostile set of neighbors,” says Sheila Smith in our second track this week. Indeed, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has” affected the new 10-year defense plan that will set the course for Japan’s own military planning. Japan must now fear more than ever that Moscow and Beijing will join forces against it.” And “the live-fire exercises conducted by the People’s Republic of China after the visit to Taiwan by United States Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demonstrate a leap in the [People’s Liberation Army’s] capabilities to act jointly and in all areas to control the waters and airspace in and around Taiwan”.

In the past, arguments for increased defense spending tended to generate controversy and backlash. Abe’s critics bristled at his historic nationalist and revisionist packaging of such proposals. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed that. Kishida’s emphasis on the invasion as “an outrageous act that undermines the very foundation of the international order” and Japan’s response as “the defense of the post-war status quo”, mean that this time, Kishida might be able to facilitate some consensus. and public support for strengthening Japan’s defense spending.

Yet, as a mountain is conquered, a new peak arises. Kishida’s consensus building skills could be strained as new battles emerge over where any increased defense spending should go and how to pay for it given the severe financial constraints linked to Japan’s public debt, the aging and shrinking population and taxpayer base.

The EAF Editorial Board is located at the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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