Spear and shield no more: Japan declares aggressive security stance with US support

Posted on : 2022-05-24 17:08 KST Modified on : 2022-05-24 17:08 KST
The 70-year relationship between the US and Japan is shifting as they work together to counter the rising influence of China
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of their summit at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 23. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of their summit at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 23. (AP/Yonhap News)

“Joe, welcome back to Japan.”

At 2:15 on Monday, the US and Japanese heads of state arrived dressed in white masks for a press conference at the guest house of Tokyo’s Akasaka Palace following their summit there earlier that day. The venue was packed with reporters, who rose from their seats to greet the leaders.

The leaders’ faces appeared quite solemn — perhaps a reflection of the difficult present situation on two fronts in Europe and Asia with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China. As Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke first, taking the microphone to share a short welcoming message in English with US President Joe Biden, the tension in the room seemed to abate somewhat.

The graveness of the international situation was also reflected in the sober words shared by Kishida and Biden.

“The Japan-U.S. summit this time, in this context, was more important than ever in respect of two points,” Kishida declared as he began his remarks. He went on to cite two major changes: a “crisis that shakes the foundation of international order, which is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” and “the challenge of ensuring peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region” in response to China.

Similarly, Biden stressed that cooperation between the US and Japan as “the two largest economies in the democratic world” had been “particularly vital in organizing the global response to hold [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accountable for his brutal war in Ukraine.”

When asked whether the US intended to intervene militarily in the event of an emergency in Taiwan, he replied, “Yes.”

“That’s the commitment we made,” he added.

The joint statement issued by the two sides after their summit showed their commitment to upholding a “rules-based international order” in response to the stern challenge posed by China.

Subtitled “Strengthening the Free and Open International Order,” the statement declared, “As global partners, Japan and the United States affirm that the rules-based international order is indivisible; threats to international law and the free and fair economic order anywhere constitute a challenge to our values and interests everywhere.”

With their commitment to upholding such an order, the two countries’ summit marked the first step on a long journey toward fundamentally altering the nature of the bilateral alliance that has existed for seven decades.

Since that alliance was formed in April 1952, the US has played the part of the “spear” attacking outside foes, while Japan has remained in the role of a “shield” fending off attacks against itself while upholding its principle of an exclusively defense-oriented military.

But with the latest summit, the two sides took a step toward both performing the role of “spear” with the ability to attack adversaries directly. In the joint text, Kishida expressed his “resolve to examine all options necessary for national defense, including capabilities to counter missile threats,” along with his “determination to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities and secure substantial increase of its defense budget needed to effect it.” Biden was quoted as having “strongly supported” this.

Accordingly, Japan is expected to substantially increase its defense spending to the range of 2%–3% of gross domestic product — compared with just 1% now — and to acquire capabilities for strikes against enemy bases, which it has not possessed to date. In effect, it is poised for full-scale rearmament that would allow it to strike against missile bases in China and North Korea.

The factor most directly contributing to this fundamental shift in the US-Japan alliance has been the rise of China. It’s what led former President Barack Obama to adopt his “rebalance to Asia” policy response, which successor Donald Trump developed into his “Indo-Pacific strategy.”

With Biden now in his second year in office, the US has been putting the finishing touches on hemming China in on both the security and economic fronts through AUKUS — a military alliance with the UK and Australia — and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was launched the same day. In the process, Japan is establishing its role as one of the guardians of the “rules-based international order” as a key US ally.

It remains too early to tell whether these changes will bring greater “stability” to the Indo-Pacific region or elicit an outcry from China that brings about greater chaos.

At the joint press conference, Kishida seemed to be steeling his own resolve.

“In order to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific and to establish a free and open rules-based international order, Japan and the United States will engage in utmost efforts with irreversible resolve,” he stated.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent; Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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