The recently announced change in Japan’s defense strategy, which calls for the development of military capabilities, an increase in military spending to $320 billion over the next five years, and the use of preventive and counterattack strikes against external threats, represents a significant departure from the country’s long-standing military doctrine that has relied on defense since World War II within the framework of a peaceful constitution. This shift will bear strategic and security ramifications for the East Asian region.
Japan took this step in response to China’s escalation of military action against Taiwan, North Korea’s advancement of its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and the repeated firing of long-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Collectively, these developments ratcheted up the pressure on Tokyo to build up its defenses in order to counter these threats within the framework of a deterrence strategy.
Japan’s decision to increase military spending will undoubtedly have a significant impact on regional security and on Japan’s adversaries, particularly North Korea and China, who both strongly opposed Tokyo’s move and saw it as harmful and a threat to each of them, harkening back the spirit of the Second World War and Japan’s regional expansion during that time.
What Japan did was, though, predictable given the militarization strategy that has dominated interactions on the Korean Peninsula and in Southeast Asia recently. This was particularly the case under Joe Biden’s administration, which is marked by escalation and de-escalation by the axis that includes North Korea and China and that which includes the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
After diplomacy and dialogue failed to settle the North Korean nuclear and missile file, the United States resorted to the “stick policy” of imposing more economic sanctions, which prompted North Korea to escalate its rhetoric and develop its missile capabilities, including the Hwasong-17 missile, which has a range of more than 10,000 kilometers and can target all of US territory.
Simultaneously, the Biden administration abandoned strategic ambiguity in its approach to Taiwan and adopted a more confrontational stance towards China, by providing Taiwan with modern weapons or politically supporting its independence. Such support was evidenced by the visit of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan a few months ago and President Biden’s repeated announcements to stand by Taiwan militarily against any Chinese military intervention.
China was compelled by this to pursue an escalation and deterrence policy and strengthen its military. This year, China’s military budget exceeded $330 billion, while the US military budget was $770 billion.
Beijing views Taiwan as an integral part of the Chinese mainland and considers its independence to be a serious transgression. As such, it worked to develop a wide array of strategic smart weapons, including long-range missiles, stealth aircraft, and aircraft carriers to deter US threats and prevent Taiwan’s independence. Furthermore, Russia and China have strengthened their strategic partnership and have participated in joint military drills.
Indeed, the US backing of a military buildup in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula serves a dual purpose. First, within the context of the strategic struggle over the international order, the United States seeks to stifle China’s rise militarily and economically by igniting a new front of conflict and inflaming tension in the region, draining China by trying to recreate the Ukraine situation on the Taiwan front. China, however, is cautious about stumbling into the American trap. For Beijing, the United States’ acceptance of the new Japanese defense strategy will fortify the US-Japanese military alliance, which incites China and North Korea to increase their military spending and armament. Second, there is an economic rationale for the US backing for Taiwan, as the increased sales of US arms to Japan and South Korea help stimulate the US economy, which is having a hard time recovering from the effects of historically high inflation and high costs.
There are numerous risks associated with US militarization of this vital region. First, the escalating hostility between the various actors poses a threat to regional stability and security and could spark a major confrontation in a region that is home to nearly half of the world’s population and numerous nuclear weapons. Indeed, the US will not engage in any military conflict and will instead use the proxy war approach, as it did in Ukraine. Second, this uptick in tensions sparks a nuclear arms race in the region and a trend toward the development of military capabilities, both of which have an impact on the pace of development in these countries because they call for substantial funding. Additionally, militarization and the escalation strategy reduce the likelihood of diplomacy and dialogue in resolving complex and divisive issues, particularly in relation to the peaceful resolution of North Korea’s nuclear program, pacification of Taiwan, and reconciliation between the two Koreas.
In short, escalation and brinkmanship policies run the risk of creating disastrous situations, so it is important to prioritize diplomacy, dialogue, and wisdom when handling regional conflicts. Given the suffering caused by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the world cannot afford the costs associated with opening a new front.