Japan’s ‘Remilitarisation’ Not Necessarily To US’s Benefit

For many years now, the US has been urging Japan to increase its military capabilities, so that the latter country can do more for its own defence, and contribute to regional security. The main (unstated) reason for Washington’s urging is so that Japan can help it counterbalance a rising China.

But now that Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, actually appears to be moving towards strengthening its Self-Defense Forces (I use the speech marks in the word ‘remilitarisation’, because Japan has gradually been remilitarising for many years), the US is becoming nervous. Why is this the case? There are four reasons.

The first is that Japan’s increasingly nationalistic stance under Abe is raising tensions with China and South Korea. Because the US is obliged by treaty to defend Japan in the event of conflict, Washington naturally fears that Tokyo could inadvertently drag it into combat, if hostilities break out between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

The second reason is that Japan’s nationalistic stance greatly angers the US’s other key East Asian ally, South Korea. Bad relations between Tokyo and Seoul generally weaken Washington’s system of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, because China or North Korea will find it easier to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea. This makes it harder for the US to build a united front to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme.

Thirdly, Japan’s perceived unrepentance over its wartime policies and behaviour offends the US’s narrative of World War II. It is arguably difficult for two countries to be close allies when they hold completely different views over their behaviour in a world war.

The fourth reason is that eventually, a Japan that is more self-sufficient in terms of its defence arrangements would reduce the need for a US military presence in East Asia (there are still 40,000 American troops in Japan, and their presence has long been contentious), just as Washington is seeking to ‘pivot’ itself towards the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, a more assertive and capable Japan could find its interests diverging from the US, making Tokyo a potential geopolitical rival. Ultimately, the US’s grand strategy is to prevent the emergence of new global powers that could challenge American hegemony. This explains the paranoia surrounding the rise of Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s, even though Japan is a democracy and close ally of the US.

In the event that Japan were to become a major military power in its own right, the US could find itself subtly trying to counterbalance Japan, most probably by strengthening ties with South Korea, or even eventually, North Korea.

The above is of course highly speculative. In reality, there are considerable obstacles to Japan’s ‘remilitarisation’, such as its dire fiscal deficit and debt burdens, uncertainty about Abe’s durability, and divisions among the Japanese public over the desirability of a more activist defence force. Nevertheless, it is not too early to consider all eventualities. 

Current, emerging, and future threat perceptions are covered extensively in Business Monitor Online and our quarterly Defence & Security reports.