National Review

Japan Abandons Pacifism

Why the island nation turned away from pacifism.

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Hyūga-class helicopter destroyer JS Hyūga (DDH 181) launches an MH-60J Seahawk helicopter during training. Operating as part of U.S. Pacific Fleet, units assigned to Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Groups, America and Essex Amphibious Ready Groups, alongside JMSDF, are conducting training to preserve and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (Photo by Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Jeremy Faller)
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Hyūga launches an MH-60J Seahawk helicopter during training in the Philippine Sea on January 21, 2022. (DVIDS photo by Jeremy Faller)

Taipei and Tokyo

Russia's vicious attack on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure is drawing eyeballs and condemnations around the world, but an equally important story is unfolding on the other side of Eurasia. For more than a decade, Japan has been quietly countering China’s unfolding plan to dominate Asia, and it is taking an important new step. After decades of quasi-pacifism, Japan is initiating a massive rearmament program. When China looks to the east, the sun is not the only thing it sees rising.

As Japan rearms, it is exacerbating one of China’s thorniest dilemmas. The Chinese Communist Party rules a large country with an immense population and great resources, but that country is surrounded by powerful neighbors. Unlike the United States, which is bordered by Canada, Mexico, and fish, China is in the middle of an unfriendly neighborhood. It has four nuclear-armed neighbors — India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia — and nearby are two others, Japan and South Korea, that can acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as they deem necessary. Some of China’s smaller neighbors may not be members of the nuclear club, but they do pose other problems. Burma’s continued instability, some of which is due to Chinese instigation, threatens to unleash chaos on China’s southern border, and Vietnam is a pugnacious if soft-spoken opponent of China’s ambitions. Much like Kaiser Wilhelm before him, Xi Jinping has aspirations of global preeminence, but to realize his ambitions, he must find a way to seduce or neutralize his neighbors.

Xi is much further along this path than many Americans realize. There is a popular misconception that China’s influence over North Korea is enormous and North Korea would cease its belligerence if only the Chinese would tell their vassal to get in line. This is overstated, but Beijing and Pyongyang have reached a workable modus vivendi. Pakistan, one of the largest recipients of Belt and Road projects, has deepened its long-standing collaboration with China against their mutual adversary, India. Vladimir Putin has accepted a subordinate role in his “no limits” partnership with Xi rather than reach an accommodation with the West. He is meekly standing by as China undermines Russian influence in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, and Russian and Chinese aircraft now routinely conduct joint patrols near Japan and South Korea, demonstrating that their militaries are becoming more interoperable.

Japan and India are the Asian pillars of a balance of power against Chinese hegemony, and China is steadily working to encircle them and knock those pillars down. China’s advances near the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean are well known at this point: The “string of pearls” that stretches from China’s overseas base in Djibouti through the Pakistani port in Gwadar to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, on which China acquired a 99-year lease in 2017, leaves India vulnerable on all sides if a conflict with China breaks out. Japan is slightly better off, but still in peril. As one Japanese interlocutor told me, the country is facing dangers on three fronts. China and North Korea threaten Japan’s west, Japan’s southwestern islands are already in danger of Chinese encroachment, and as China and Russia grow closer together, Japanese defense planners cannot rule out an attack from the north.

Taiwan is the key to Japan’s security. A consensus is forming in Tokyo that keeping Taiwan out of China’s control is a national interest for Japan. The Chinese Communists’ rhetoric about “reunification” with Taiwan, which they have not controlled for a moment in the history of this galaxy, distracts from a core issue about Taiwan. The island sits along the trade routes that are vital for Japan’s economy. Fuel from the Middle East, food, and a significant portion of Japan’s other trade come from the southwest. If China gets Taiwan in its clutches, it will not only have Japan’s southwestern islands in easy reach; it will also have its hands around Japan’s throat. At that point, the pressure on Japan to make a deal with China would be enormous, a deal that Americans would have a hard time stomaching.

Japan’s independence may very well be the pivot on which the global balance of power turns. If China can neutralize Japan, or make it into a vassal, Americans and their remaining allies will have little chance of assembling a coalition that can compete effectively in the most strategically important region in the world.

This is the nightmare that the United States has sought to avoid since Great Britain lost its ability to maintain the global balance of power. During the 20th century, when Europe played an outsized role in global politics, hundreds of thousands of Americans died preventing Germany from dominating Europe, and hundreds of thousands more with thousands of nuclear weapons defended the industrial heartland of Europe from Soviet machinations during the Cold War. If China can pull Asia into its orbit, it will achieve in the 21st century what Germany and the Soviet Union could not in the 20th.

The United States would not automatically lose its independence in this scenario, but it would be hard-pressed to defend itself, let alone to assemble a new coalition to defend the free world. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s May 1941 speech about Hitler’s global ambitions is worth revisiting here: If Hitler conquered Europe, he warned, Germany could set the terms for a new economic order. American workers would be hardest hit. “The American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world.” To survive, American companies would have to go along with their new overseas masters. “Those in the New World who were seeking profits would be urging that all that the dictatorships desired was ‘peace.’ They would oppose toil and taxes for more American armament.” Fortress America would be a poor backwater: “Tariff walls — Chinese walls of isolation — would be futile. Freedom to trade is essential to our economic life. . . . It would not be an American wall to keep Nazi goods out; it would be a Nazi wall to keep us in.”

Americans have already gotten a foretaste of a China-dominated global economy, and it is bitter. David Autor argues that the “China shock” destroyed nearly six out of every ten lost manufacturing jobs from 2001 to 2019. China is not stopping with lower-value manufacturing: It aspires to shape global technology regulations to benefit Chinese companies and  gradually cut out Western ones. As Michael Lind warns, the United States “could decline into a deindustrialized, English-speaking version of a Latin American republic, specializing in commodities, real estate, tourism, and perhaps transnational tax evasion.” China has already tried to ruin the careers of Americans, such as Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who supported Hong Kong protesters. Imagine how much freedom of speech we would have if China could bring control of the global economy to bear on Americans who criticize Chinese policy.

Fortunately, Japan is aware of the danger and is rising to meet the challenge. The Japanese have received their own taste of China’s belligerence. In 2010, China escalated a long-running dispute over the Senkaku Islands by suspending exports to Japan of rare earth elements, a set of hard-to-mine minerals that are vital for high-tech manufacturing. During both of his stints as prime minister, the late Shinzo Abe maneuvered to prepare his country, which has been wary of employing force since World War II and was economically entangled with China, for the confrontation that he could see on the horizon. Abe was one of the foremost advocates of the “Quad” partnership with Australia, India, and the United States; he pushed Japan to reinterpret its pacifist constitution so that it could take a greater role in providing regional security; and he coined the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which the United States has since adopted.

Japan has quickened the pace in the last few years. A series of events has transformed Japan’s outlook on the global situation: The Covid pandemic demonstrated that China’s governance system is a source of risk for other countries, Xi could be even more assertive now that he has locked in his third term at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that great-power wars are back on the table, and the United States has become a less reliable ally on which Tokyo can no longer necessarily depend for security. Even my Japanese interlocutors who were the most complimentary of Donald Trump noted that his election was not a sign of American stability and predictability. Abe and Trump had a very close relationship, which served the American and Japanese people well, but the Japanese cannot rely on idiosyncrasies such as personal friendships when their country is at stake.

Hence, Japan’s rearmament. The first step will be the release of Japan’s new national-security strategy, which by all accounts will identify the challenge before Japan with a frankness that is unusual in government documents. Next, the government will drastically increase the defense budget, from roughly 5 trillion yen (less than $40 billion) currently to averaging over 8 trillion yen annually over the next five years. Having seen Russia’s and Ukraine’s enormous expenditure of munitions and materiel, the government is focused on buying munitions, spare parts, and other equipment that the Japanese forces will need if a conflict breaks out in the next few years. In addition, Japan will acquire new capabilities, such as long-range missiles that can strike enemy missiles on the launchpad, and it will invest in future high-tech capabilities in realms such as cyber and space. All told, Japan’s armed forces will fast become much more formidable.

Americans can be heartened by Japan’s rearmament, but it is a silver lining of a dark cloud that looms large. The United States has asked its allies for years to shoulder more of the load, but it is not because we have become more persuasive that they are moving in that direction. Rather, they are acquiring more weapons because their neighborhood has become more threatening and our security guarantees have become less convincing.

There is still much to do. A well-armed Japan will greatly complicate China’s ambitions in Taiwan or anywhere else in the Pacific, but there is no substitute for American power. Currently, the United States plans to shed old ships and planes over the next decade in order to save money and enter the 2030s with a modernized military. Since the American forces in Japan are already significantly underequipped as China’s military buildup continues, and thus the balance of power in the Western Pacific is tilting, this is an extraordinarily risky strategy. The Biden administration has not allowed the defense budget to keep pace with inflation, so the cuts will be even deeper, and the modernization even farther off, than we realize. Congress is adding $45 billion to this year’s defense budget, which will help but is insufficient to meet the demands of the moment.

More capabilities are important, but so too is better planning. Modern warfare is immensely complicated, and managing the various aerial, ground, and naval components is challenging even for the U.S. military, which has more experience with joint operations than most of its counterparts. The Japanese and American militaries operate together frequently, but in a war that could begin with massive salvos of supersonic missiles, speed would be at a premium, and closer cooperation would be necessary. There is almost no coordination between the Americans, Japanese, and Taiwanese, who would have to fight together to stave off a Chinese offensive. This is not a recipe for success.

After decades of struggling to take over, eventually Germany accepted a smaller role in Europe’s affairs. Japan too has become an important U.S. ally in part because the U.S.-led order has given Japan many of the benefits that it desired before Pearl Harbor. There may yet come a day when China accepts a role in Asia’s affairs that is beneficial to all. But Germany and Japan did not come to those realizations quietly, and a conflict with China would be catastrophic. Deterring China from taking up arms is the first step to right-sizing its ambitions. It is one that the Americans and Japanese are taking side by side.

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