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Eyeing China, Japan lifts longtime restrictions to allow major defense buildup

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force disembark from a V-22 Osprey aircraft during a live-fire exercise at East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, on May 28. The annual live-fire drill took place as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to boost defense spending after a summit with U.S. President Biden and other "Quad" leaders.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force disembark from a V-22 Osprey aircraft during a live-fire exercise at East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, on May 28. The annual live-fire drill took place as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to boost defense spending after a summit with U.S. President Biden and other "Quad" leaders.

TOKYO — Japan has made a significant policy change to allow it to get the ability to strike other nations, a move widely seen as a major step toward rearming the nation more than seven decades since it demilitarized after World War II.

As Japan's relations with China worsen and the threat it perceives from its much larger neighbor heightens, the Japanese government gave a green light Friday to proposals it has been debating sporadically since at least 1956.

Japan had avoided obtaining strike capabilities, so as not to violate Japan's post-war constitution, which renounces the right — and the means — to wage war, and to avoid provoking its neighbors.

At a press conference after the documents' release, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida argued that Japan must keep pace with other nations' advances in missile technology.

"In such a severe environment," he said, "counterstrike capability, which can deter an attack, or force an enemy to stop one, is a capability which will become increasingly vital."

The move follows years of efforts by the United States to persuade Japan to assume more responsibility for its own defense, particularly as a bulwark against China's rising military might and threats against Taiwan.

In a statement, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called the shift "a bold and historic step to strengthen and defend the free and open Indo-Pacific."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, meanwhile, accused Tokyo of "hyping up the 'China threat' to find an excuse for its military buildup."

The policy is outlined in revisions to three national security strategy documents. The document also calls for boosting defense spending to roughly 2% of gross domestic product by 2027, after decades of being capped at 1%.

The money would go to import missiles from the United States, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles, capable of reaching North Korea and parts of China. Japan also plans to develop its own weapons, including advanced fighter jets, hypersonic missiles and armed drones. Japanese media have reported on some of the purchase plans, citing the nation's defense ministry. Japanese politicians are debating where the money to fund the increase will come from.

It's the biggest shift in Japan's defense policy since its cabinet reinterpreted the constitution in 2014 to allow the military to fight in support of an ally under attack.

Japan's ruling party has long wanted to amend the constitution to remove restrictions on its military, but it has been unable to muster enough public support.

The government insists that Japan's defense policies will remain strictly defensive, and the country will neither threaten other nations, nor carry out preemptive strikes, in violation of international law.

Perceived foreign threats are driving the shift

While the shift has been encouraged for years by Japan's principal ally, the United States, perceived threats are what primarily appear to be driving the policy change. The security documents name China, its military buildup and tensions with Taiwan, as primary threats.

North Korea's expanding nuclear and missile arsenal and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are also mentioned.

Polls indicate a majority of Japanese now agree that the country needs to have a strike capability.

Former defense official Kyoji Yanagisawa is one of the few dissenting voices. He believes the missiles will not deter potential adversaries, and Japan would be better off investing in diplomacy to avoid war.

"To have a deterrent, we should have the capability to almost completely neutralize the enemy's missiles, but we don't have that," he argues. "Not only do we lack a deterrent, we will also prompt a counterattack" from an enemy.

The legal details are murky

Since Japan has increasingly indicated it will come to Taiwan's aid and work with the U.S., should China launch an invasion of Taiwan, it's possible that military bases on Japanese territories will be hit.

Official discussions suggest that Japan could launch a missile counterattack after being hit, or strike enemy bases or command facilities as missiles are about to be launched at Japan.

But striking enemies who you think are about to attack you could be legally murky.

"We only know whether an attack is pre-emptive or not," and legal or not, "after it is carried out," argues Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional law expert at Waseda University in Tokyo. Japan's government, though, he adds, may be able to successfully argue that simply possessing the weapons as a deterrent without using them is in line with the constitution.

However, Hasebe adds, "The government is insisting it is constitutional. So it's difficult to debate this point."

Japan's government has not explained how the shift would square with the constitution, and so far there have been few challenges from civil society, media, courts or opposition parties.

What this means for Washington

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said that Japan is about to spend a lot of money to acquire capabilities that the U.S. already brings to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

One reason for this overlap, he said, is concern about the return of former President Donald Trump, who downplayed the value of America's traditional alliances, or someone like him.

"I think there are many in Tokyo who say, 'Look, we can't be 100% confident about where the United States is going to be in terms of the alliance five, 10, 15 years down the road,'" he said.

One lesson observers say Japan has taken from Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion is that the more a nation takes the initiative to defend itself, the more it motivates allies to come to its aid.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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