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Japan’s security strategy – China in its sights

By Gerhard Hinterhaeuser
Gerhard Hinterhäuser schreibt hier zu Chinas Aufstieg
Gerhard Hinterhäuser is Senior Advisor of the Strategic Minds Company.

Last December, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida surprised the world public with a new Japanese security strategy. It represents a far-reaching reinterpretation of the pacifist-oriented security doctrine in force since the end of World War II. Defense spending will be doubled and thus increased by approximately $315 billion by 2027, making Japan’s military budget the third largest in the world after the United States and China. The country has also entered into negotiations with the US to purchase 500 Tomahawk missiles, and it plans to expand its own missile program. This will give it the ability to “counterattack,” in other words, to hit positions on the Chinese mainland from submarines or other bases. “Counterattack is,” says Premier Kishida, “an essential element of our deterrence strategy.”

Since World War II, the core of the security doctrine in force in Japan has been self-defense, as laid down in the constitution. Thus, Japan’s armed forces are referred to as a self-defense force, the country’s defense spending has been firmly capped at one percent of the gross national product since the 1950s, and Japan has refrained from projecting military power through the acquisition of weapons categories such as long-range missiles, amphibious vehicles or large aircraft carriers. Attempts to change this were firmly rejected by the Japanese population, countered by opposition parties and subjected to biting criticism by neighboring China and Korea.

The new strategic orientation is based on the “harshest and most complex security environment since World War II”. China, in particular, is described as the “greatest strategic challenge”. This is characterized by the consistent buildup of conventional and nuclear arsenals, which goes hand in hand with threats of an invasion of Taiwan, the establishment of military bases in the disputed South China Sea, and increasingly frequent attacks in the catchment area of the Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan.

The strategic alliance between China and Russia is another cause for concern. In the event of an expansion of the Ukraine war, which has been strongly condemned in Japan, it could have fatal consequences: China and Japan would face each other as parties to the conflict.

The unpredictable nuclear power North Korea also poses a growing threat. In 2022, the country conducted no fewer than 70 missile tests, and this year it plans to expand its nuclear program and send a spy satellite into space.

The Japanese population supports the new security strategy. According to a Kyodo News Agency poll conducted shortly after the announcement, 53 percent of respondents approved of acquiring the ability to counterattack, while 42.6 percent were opposed, although the majority opposed funding through tax increases. This is consistent with several other surveys that indicate Japanese opinion of China has dimmed considerably over the past 10 years. Today, the vast majority of the population rates relations with China as not good, and only a minority claims to have a friendly attitude toward China.

Personal visit to appease China canceled

As expected, China strongly criticized the new strategy. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said “Japan would ignore facts, deviate from commitments in Sino-Japanese relations and common understanding between the two countries, and discredit China for no reason.” A visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who is considered China-friendly and was scheduled to coincide with the announcement of the new security strategy to appease Chinese policy makers, had to be postponed until late January at the earliest due to the recent Covid wave gliding over the country.

Legitimate and understandable from Japan’s point of view and desirable from the US perspective, nothing can hide the fact that the new security strategy represents a further escalation in the already very tense relations between the powers of the Western community of values and China.

In this situation, in which there is now not only talk of a cold war but fears of military attacks are also increasingly part of the discussion, Europe has a role to play as a mediator between the adversaries. It brings years of good and resilient relations in business, science and culture and would have the necessary trust on the Chinese side as well as the corresponding gravitas.

That Europe defends its own values vis-à-vis China is as self-evident as it is important. All too often in the past, this has been neglected in favor of unacceptable economic opportunism and due to excessive superficiality. This has played into China’s hands. However, despite all understanding for a tougher stance toward the country, the current offensive appearance only fuels the rhetoric on both sides and thus increases the existing tensions.

Defending our values does not mean renouncing pragmatism. Instead of ideologized approaches that are more oriented toward narratives than facts, we should advocate a policy that focuses on solving concrete problems. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger set an example: In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, they set out for China to seek new ways of cooperation with a country whose values could not have been more different. The result was 50 years of joint development that brought unprecedented prosperity not only to these two countries.

In the meantime, we have reached a point where the stakes are no less than war or peace. We can see what war looks like every day in Ukraine. It must be the top priority of our rulers to work on the stability of relations with China that spares the population a destructive and ultimately senseless confrontation. The values of the West and China are not the same and probably never will be. But we cannot renounce each other for that reason. Europe should not allow itself to be infected by the polarization that is spreading around the world. As a reliable partner within the Western community of values, it should confidently assume a role as a mediator between today’s irreconcilable powers. It would be a contribution to peace and freedom – the highest values the West can pursue.

Gerhard Hinterhaeuser is Senior Advisor of Strategic Minds Company. He lives in Asia and Germany and was a member of the management board of the investment house PICC Asset Management in Shanghai from 2006 to 2014. His professional stations in Asia included Deutsche Bank, Hypovereinsbank and Munich Re.

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