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America should welcome a well-armed Japan

In an increasingly dangerous world, we need our allies to be strong

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 12. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

America should welcome a well-armed Japan
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A century ago, Japan launched a massive military build-up that culminated in the ghastly destruction of much of Asia, its attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s entry into World War II. Now Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has just visited Washington, D.C., and announced a new military expansion. This time the United States should welcome Japan’s rearmament.

History rarely fails to surprise. It was an aggressive dictatorship that led Japan’s military rearmament in the 1920s and 1930s, as Imperial Japan sought to conquer the entire Asia Pacific region in the cause of bloodlust and Japanese racial superiority. After the United States defeated Japan and ended World War II, the American occupation of Japan rooted out its militarism, re-wrote its constitution, and rebuilt Japan as a peaceful democracy and ally of the United States. The Japanese people embraced this transformation and made it their own.

Kishida’s announcement is transformative, especially his commitment to double Japan’s defense budget from 1 percent to 2 percent of its GDP. However, contrary to much media reporting, it is not “unprecedented” for democratic Japan to expand its military budget and defense commitments in such a dramatic way. Rather, Kishida is building on a foundation first laid by his predecessor Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

As I describe in my new book on President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, he often called the U.S.-Japan relationship “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” and saw Japan as America’s most valuable ally in Asia. To help counter the Soviet threat, which menaced Japan as much as Europe, Reagan persuaded Japan to triple—yes, triple—its military budget over the course of his presidency. Japan also agreed to take more responsibility for its defense, and thus freed up the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet to roam further in pressuring the Soviets on the maritime front. Tokyo in turn shared key technology with the United States for Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” to guard against Soviet ballistic missiles. This U.S.-Japan partnership played an underappreciated role in the Soviet Union’s collapse and America’s peaceful victory in the Cold War.

Now that a new Cold War is upon us, Japan is once again stepping up to its responsibilities as the most powerful democracy in Asia and America’s most important ally in the region.

A close look at the world map shows that Japan faces three menacing neighbors: China, Russia, and North Korea.

It is impossible to understand geopolitics without a globe, and a close look at the world map shows that Japan faces three menacing neighbors: China, Russia, and North Korea. The threats are real and immediate: all three of those nations have nuclear missiles that could hit Japan within minutes of launch. All three have submarines that can target Japanese shipping or blockade its ports. In particular, Kishida has voiced the worry that China might see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as precedent for its own attack on Taiwan, the latter a close partner and near neighbor of Japan. He has often warned that “East Asia is the Ukraine of tomorrow.”

This is not just a flight of rhetoric. David Ignatius of the Washington Post reports, “One galvanizing moment for Japanese leaders, U.S. officials say, was when China and Russia flew six heavy bombers near Japan in a joint exercise on May 24, as Tokyo was hosting a meeting of the “Quad” partnership of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.”

Beijing also took notice of Kishida’s Washington visit and announcement. The Global Times, an official newspaper that reliably spouts the Chinese Communist Party line, fulminated: “If it continues to act as a pawn of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan must be wary of becoming a victim of the U.S. or even the Ukraine of East Asia.”

In recent decades Japan has relied on two sources for its security: its military, and its alliance with the United States. The former is capable but has been limited in its reach. The latter includes substantial American forces based in Japan and the “nuclear umbrella” of America’s own arsenal. But the United States cannot do it alone, especially as our military is underfunded and overstretched with global commitments. Kishida shows that Japan will now bear its share of the burden.

Some Americans may prefer to see the world in hermetically sealed regions where actions in one place have no effect on another place. But that is an illusion. Most countries do not see the world that way—certainly our main allies and our main adversaries do not.

Christians understand that in our fallen world, it is not military power itself that causes conflict, suffering, and injustice; rather it is the nature of the governments and leaders who possess that power, and how they use it. Military strength can be wielded for good or for evil. We should give thanks that Japan is sharpening its sword for good.

William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor in chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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