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Tokyo’s Balancing Act over Rearmament for a Stormy Fifteen Years

The taifu shizun, Japan’s typhoon season, last from May to October and is especially intense between August and September. Straits Times, a prestigious Singaporean newspaper, recently used the metaphor, invoking the rumbling of thunder and lightning bolts in relation to the announcement of the AUKUS deal (Washington’s strategic relaunch in the Indo-Pacific), and the immediate Chinese economic response, with China applying to join the CPTPP, the equivalent trading bloc to the RCEP in the Pacific.

A hot autumn in the Indo-Pacific

Other events have contributed to upsetting the Asian waters: the American withdrawal from Kabul, which has raised doubts about American credibility among its allies and Asian partners; a succession of North Korean ballistic tests, with the novelty of a Pyongyang cruise missile being deployed; the test conducted by Seoul of a ballistic missile aboard a conventional submarine, with South Korea blatantly flaunting its ambitions to equip itself with nuclear-powered vessels. The region is also experiencing renewed militry tensions between China and Taiwan over Taipei’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), accompanied by massive naval manoeuvres by the Quad countries — the USA, Australia, Japan and India between Okinawa and the Bay of Bengal.

Tokyo has taken the opportunity to test its Izumo-class helicopter carriers — which were converted to de facto aircraft carrier[s], in the Global Times description — by having the marines’ F-34Bs aircraft take off from their decks. In , Japan approved the purchase of a batch of 42 F-35B aircraft; some will be deployed on the two converted carriers, the Izumo and the Kaga. In mid-October Russia and China held naval exercises in the Sea of Japan, with Beijing deploying some of its most modern and powerful units.

The Financial Times speaks of a hot autumn in Asian waters. Washington and its various allies are flexing their muscles in what Beijing views as its backyard, a harbinger of the region’s future in which east and south-east Asia is becoming the world’s busiest staging ground for military rivalry between Beijing and liberal democracies []. On the Financial Times front page carried the news of the Chinese test, which took place at the start of August, of a hypersonic missile with a very long range, which caught US intelligence by surprise. The USA underestimated China’s astounding progress, not only in hypersonic technology, but also in orbital weapons, or FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombing System). A similar system was developed and tested by the USSR between and , to close the gap with the USA in intercontinental missiles (ICBMs). In this way the USSR equipped itself with nuclear warhead launchers with a theoretical range of 40,000 km [Hugh Harkins, The Soviet Globalnaya Raketa, Centurion Publishing, ].

The changing of the LDP guard amid Covid-19, China, and missiles

This is the geopolitical context in which the elections for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were held in Japan following Yoshihide Suga’s resignation on . Suga had previously succeeded Shinzo Abe in . The internal electoral rounds, equivalent to America’s presidential primaries, saw the victory in the second round of Fumio Kishida, who rose to the premiership as a candidate in the legislative elections of .

Suga’s downfall, according to the Japanese press, was caused by his lack of appeal to the electorate, following his defeat in the municipal elections in Yokohama, his electoral fiefdom, combined with a spike in Covid-19 infections over the summer. While his government achieved a vaccination rate of about 67% of the population [as per mid-October] — on par with France and above the USA — it has given mixed signals, particularly in applying emergency health regulations, with sectors of the economy, especially small businesses, suffering.

The conversion of the dove Kishida

Based on the narrative circulated at the time of Abe’s succession, Suga was seen by the LDP as an interim solution to avoid early elections in the midst of a health emergency. Suga was elected in large part thanks to the LDP’s Chinese faction, led by Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai. He ultimately proved to be the lightning rod in a struggle to succeed Abe and, according to Japanese reports, was unfit to lead the party in national elections as well as unable manage the internal confrontation over relations with Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

Even Nikai, who had to leave the secretariat, emerged weakened from the internal confrontation, and eventually resolved to support Kishida. According to the Japanese press, this affair has confirmed that Abe is the liberal-democratic kingmaker: if Kishida, foreign minister from to , had always been considered by the former premier as a potential successor, he was also judged as still immature, not very suitable to face a crisis, being considered by the LDP right wing as having pro-China dovish […] views. Along with his faction (the Kochikai), and in combination with Kakuei Tanka’s centrist faction (the Keiseikai), he supported the Yoshida consensus of pursuing a slow post-war Japanese rise, privileging the exercise of economic force and limiting the recovery of political-military instruments.

Kishida, 64 years old, is a native of Hiroshima and an anti-nuclearist with a technocratic background. He was deemed more suitable than Taro Kono, former defence and foreign minister, who was responsible for the vaccination programme under Suga Kono, who is very popular among LDP members but is considered not very controllable by the party establishment, is disliked by the national-conservative right because of positions that are too liberal on the social level, and because he favours abandoning nuclear energy. Abe did not directly back Kishida for the presidency, supporting the candidacy of Sane Takaichi, a former interior minister with strongly nationalist views. Takaichi’s share of the votes, which placed her in third position after the first round, was swung by Abe to Kishida in the second round. The last televised debate between candidates, following the AUKUS announcement, was characterised by anti-Chinese overtones, with Kono and Takaichi arguing for Tokyo’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines: on this point Kishida broke away, saying he was against a Japanese AUKUS solution.

A force de frappe in the making?

However, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on and reiterated a few days later in Nikkei, Kishida argued in favour of implementing the Abe line on a Japanese missile counterattack capability. If Japan couldn’t attack potential enemies first, […] it needed to be prepared for a scenario in which it was struck first and expecting further missile attacks. In such a scenario, Can we protect the lives of the people by watching silently as Japan gets hit? […] Don’t we need to have the ability to block the other side’s missile attack capability? In essence: the missile arsenal would not be used for a pre-emptive strike, but as a second-strike, retaliatory tool, as part of a defensive deterrence posture.

In many ways this echoes Tokyo’s position since the 1950s regarding the possession of an autonomous nuclear deterrent, considered constitutionally legitimate under the right to self-defence. In , Nikkei intervened in this debate by underlining how a static missile defence and enemy-base strikes were not mutually exclusive and should be considered within a broader concept of deterrence. The American, French and British concepts emphasised three dimensions: retaliating with nuclear or conventional weapons; a preemptive strike on an enemy base in the event of an imminent attack; and the use of anti-missile systems to parry an attack. Even neutral Finland, he added, has a strong deterrent plan, with the ability to attack Russian industrial areas near the border with precision munitions According to Kishida, Tokyo needs to overcome the false dichotomy between shield and spear and equip itself not only with cruise missiles, but also with a counterforce of ballistic missiles, in order to strike the adversary’s launching bases in a few minutes. A sort of force de frappe that, in Kishida’s formulation, is presented as self-sufficient defensive deterrence.

Stable realism and the rearmament perspective

Kishida came off in the Japanese mainstream press as a the status quo candidate and a stable realist, a balance between the normal-nationalism of Abe and the right-wing LDP and the Yoshida school. In , his apointment as foreign minister was interpreted as a signal to Beijing of the pragmatic political mix of Abe’s tempered revisionism [Japan’s Cautious Turn to Nationalism, Internationalist Bulletin, ]. The support of the right, with Takaichi elevated to the third executive position of the party, means that Japanese rearmament is now for the first time part of a liberal-democratic electoral platform. This platform plans to raise defence spending even above 2% of GDP, breaking the ceiling of 1%, which was introduced in . Essentially, this would be a jump in military spending from $50 to $100 billion. According to the Asahi Shimbun, it is an unprecedented commitment, which highlights Japan’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons systems to deter the PLA [Chinese armed forces] in the disputed East China Sea. The time horizon, according to Kishida’s first measures, seems to be that of the next fifteen years, overlapping with the implementation timeline of the AUKUS agreements.

A more immediate dimension is that of economic rearmament. In an interview with the Financial Times, the new prime minister spoke of deeper collaboration between the state and the private sector to secure strategic assets and technologies such as chips and rare earths. which will be pivotal for economic security, and to ensure that Japan has a self-sufficient economy and indispensability in creating stable global supply chains. Japan, he said, has no specific plans to join the [AUKUS] framework but believes it is of the utmost importance for European and US countries to be interested and involved in Asia’s security environment. Economic relations with China should be stabilised but, at the political level, Japan must be able to firmly assert itself against China [].

For Global Times, Kishida’s conversion to hawkishness can also be read as an election tactic. But the fact that he was hand-picked by Abe indicates that he will try to define China-Japan relatons within the framework of [Japan’s] alliance with the US [].

This is an assessment echoed by Dimitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow: Kishida must manage geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region […] turning into frontlines the Sino-American rivalry has generated two poles in the global system, but not […] yet two blocs. Within the Sino-American rivalry, the Russian power seeks to maintain an equilibrium. This is different from equidistance, and Russia’s focus is on promoting its own national interests. For Trenin, Moscow’s position is a mirror image of Tokyo’s. In the game of multipolar balances, caught between prospective and real rearmaments, all players find themselves handing sticks of dynamite.

De Simone, Gianluca. Equilibri di Tokyo nel riarmo per un quindicennio tempestoso Lotta Comunista, , p. 13