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Japan’s security strategy


WORLD Radio - Japan’s security strategy

Growing threats from North Korea and China have Japan rethinking its national security

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 David Mareuil/Pool Photo via Associated Press

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Up next: Japan reverses course on its passive military strategy.

In a major break from its strictly self-defense-only postwar principle, Japan has adopted a new national security approach.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Japan will now reserve the right to strike preemptively in a region with growing threats like North Korea and China.

WORLD’s Mary Reichard recently spoke with Dean Cheng—an expert on Asian geopolitics and military concerns. And she’s here now with that conversation!

MARY REICHARD: Dean, first of all, give us some background here on Japan’s defense-only policy. When and why did that policy come about?

CHENG:With the end of World War II, the United States, and obviously the rest of the allies, basically occupied Japan and Germany. And in the case of Japan, the U.S. was a dominant power. And Douglas MacArthur, as head of the occupation forces, basically helped draft the new Japanese constitution. And prominent in that constitution was what is now referred to as Article IX, which basically says that Japan gives up the right to wage war as an instrument of national policy. At the time, in 1945, through the first few years after the end of World War II, there was even a hope that Japan would be totally disarmed. But then the Korean War broke out. And so what happened after that was the creation of what is now known as the Self Defense Forces. And that's a very important term. The Japanese will correct you if you talk about today's Japanese army, they will say no, it's the Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces. And that goes back to Article IX. The idea is that the military in Japan, the Self Defense Forces, only exist for self-defense purposes. But in today's world with growing cyber threats, missile threats, and the like, there is also recognition that self-defense really probably can't only begin after the enemy has struck the homeland. And this change is recognized that while Japan still technically does not accept war as an instrument of national power, it has to evolve with the realities of technology and politics.

REICHARD: How do China’s threats against Taiwan affect Japan?

CHENG: When the Japanese look at their strategic neighborhood, one of the key things is that a China that controls Taiwan is a China that will then pose a distinct threat to Japan's sea lanes of communications. Japan is dependent on imports for its energy. I believe it is also dependent on imports for food. It certainly is dependent on the seas to export goods. And in World War II, a good part of the victory was earned by U.S. submarine commanders who sank Japan's merchant fleet. So a China that controls Taiwan is a China that would pose a threat to today's Japanese sea lanes and therefore the home islands.

REICHARD: So, what does this policy shift accomplish?

CHENG: So what this basically is saying is several things: one, that Japan with one of the larger defense budgets, although it only spends 1%, a little over 1% of GDP on defense—it's aiming to expand that 2% and 2% of what is the third or fourth largest economy in the world is actually a lot of money—that Japan is going to be prepared to better defend itself in a neighborhood where China has nuclear weapons, North Korea has nuclear weapons, South Korea is now talking about obtaining nuclear weapons, where China has the largest military in the world, with increasingly sophisticated systems and a growing reach. And a North Korea that has fired ICBMs over the Japanese home islands.

REICHARD: Let’s talk about another regional threat, North Korea. How big of a role did Pyongyang’s weapons program play in convincing Japan to change course and how will Japan work to counter potential threats from North Korea?

CHENG: North Korea is obviously a very, very difficult country to predict. It is almost hermetically sealed, even now. It has a leadership whose workings are quite a mystery. What little we do know about Kim Jong Un is that he can act in a remarkably bloodthirsty manner. He had his own uncle executed. And this is a leadership that has been willing to literally allow its own population to starve while pursuing nuclear weapons. So this is not a government that you can treat with confidence. It is a country that has openly kidnapped Japanese citizens and it has fired missiles over the home islands and made very threatening comments about Japan. So I think the Japanese, when they improve their military, qualitatively, when they expand the range of capabilities and policies, are not only talking about China, but even more in some ways, about North Korea because in some ways North Korea is even more unpredictable.

REICHARD: Dean, how close is the military cooperation between the United States and Japan?

CHENG: The Japanese, under the Constitution and under the policies put down by the occupation forces, basically have no allies other than the United States. No formal alliances. The U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty basically committed to U.S. to help defend Japan. A key part of this is that it eliminates the need for Japan to develop its own nuclear capability, which again, would be a huge problem under Article IX, we have extended a nuclear umbrella over Japan. And basically hope that that is enough to deter a North Korean or Chinese attack. The Japanese, however, are with some reason concerned about the United States because of our unpredictability over the last, say, 10 years and have begun to establish separate defense ties—not quite full alliances—with nations like Australia, India, and other countries to basically ensure that there are other great powers who will come to the aid of Japan in the event of conflict.

REICHARD: One final question: some people may not realize that two key U.S. allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, have had somewhat strained relations for a long time. Why is that? And would those countries come to one another’s defense if the need arises?

CHENG: These two countries have—to borrow a loan from Facebook—it's complicated. Their relationship is colored by the reality of Japanese aggression against the Korean Peninsula dating back to the 1500s. It dates back as well to the period of Japanese colonialism at the end of the 19th century and through the 20th century. So there's a lot of bitterness on the part of Koreans—both North and South towards Japan, the colonial occupiers. This has been exacerbated by outstanding geographic disputes. The two are in dispute over an island. The Japanese refer to it as Takeshima. The Koreans refer to it as Dokdo. This is an unresolved issue. So there's a lot of concerns, a lot of bitterness, frankly. Would the two come to each other's assistance? There is no alliance between South Korea and Japan. There are key U.S. bases in Japan that would be important to the defense of South Korea. But whether each country would, in addition, put their own forces on the line is unclear at best.

REICHARD: We’ve been talking to Dean Cheng. He is a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Dean, really informative. Thanks so much!

CHENG: Thank you for having me.

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