Rising Japanese defense spending, as I wrote last month, has already sent a message to Beijing. In just the last few weeks, Tokyo has made that message still more pointed, for Beijing, to be sure, but also for Washington. Clearly, the future will contain heightened Sino-Japanese hostility and if not a direct confrontation, very possibly an arms race. Sometimes, it seems, nothing changes.
When Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga traveled to Washington earlier this year to meet with America’s new President Joe Biden, it was the first for both men as a national leader. That fact alone was auspicious. Biden used it to signal America’s long-contemplated “pivot” to Asia, of which President Obama frequently spoke but never managed to execute. Accordingly, Biden readily reaffirmed America’s commitment to Japan. Suga, if anything, had a more serious purpose. No doubt in response to Chinese provocations, he wanted to clarify certain ambiguities in U.S. defense commitments. He tied those commitments to the islands Japan disputes with China, Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese. President Biden failed to affirm whether U.S. obligations to Japan included the islands, but neither did he deny it.
As background to Suga’s message from Washington, Japan had already stepped up its military spending, dramatically so, as I described in last month’s article. The Tokyo government had also begun the process of changing Japan’s long-pacifist practices, even the country’s constitution, to enable it to build larger and more effective military and naval forces and to project its power beyond Japan’s coastal waters. Tokyo has already made moves to sell arms to India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Now Japan has taken another step to clarify its message to Beijing further, bringing the question of Taiwan into the equation. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has stated explicitly that his nation would consider any move by China against Taiwan a threat to Japan’s “survival.” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has reinforced the message, stating: “The peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.” Not only has Japan committed itself to Taiwan’s defense in this, but by also saying that it would join the United States in such a defense. Tokyo has made it clear that it considers the U.S. defense of Taiwan part of Washington’s commitment to Japan.
Some in Japan have long pushed for such an assertive foreign policy. Gratifying as recent efforts and statements must be for this element, these people are hardly the cause of Japan’s change. Most of the country, if polls are to be believed, would prefer to remain, as Japan has since the end of the Second World War, a military ward of the United States able to direct its considerable wealth to domestic uses and its diplomacy to economic purposes.
Tokyo’s change rather has two external causes. First is the ambiguity of U.S. policy. America has never repudiated any part of its defense commitments to Japan or to Asia generally, neither has it affirmed them recently, at least not as explicitly as Japan would like. Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, tariffs, and sanctions were popular with Japan’s leadership, and Biden has changed none of what Trump did, at least in these respects, but for Japan’s purposes, this was and is insufficient, hence efforts to make clear to the world, to Washington, and especially to Beijing, what Tokyo believes America’s commitments are. Second and more motivating is China’s aggressiveness, in the island dispute, in explicit threats to Taiwan, and especially in violations of Japan’s coastal waters and air space.
As Japan seems set to continue along this path, each step will become a major influence in Asia. If a confrontation between Japan and China still seems unlikely any time soon, and hopefully ever, tension levels cannot help but rise. If Tokyo’s plans for a modern, sophisticated, and high tech, army, navy, and air force do not intimidate Beijing, they will nonetheless give China’s leadership pause, especially set in the context of a secure and explicit U.S.-Japanese alliance. Tokyo’s plans for arms sales, if, as is likely, they pass constitutional muster, will also strain Beijing’s resources. It is, then, not at all far-fetched to anticipate an Asian arms race that neither Beijing nor Tokyo nor Washington can take lightly.
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is “Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.