Japan has abandoned decades of pacifism in response to Ukraine invasion and increased Chinese pressure on Taiwan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, have left tens of thousands dead and sent shockwaves across Europe and the Middle East. But – brutal and tragic as they are – the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are regionally bounded, meaning that most of the rest of the world rolls along, largely unaffected. This will not be the case if armed conflict breaks out in east Asia.

Thanks to rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits, Kim Jong Un’s sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula, Sino-US rivalry and China’s developing alliance with Russia the risks of armed conflict shattering this region are growing, with far-reaching ramifications.


This article is the opinion of the authors Paul O’Shea, Lund University and Sebastian Maslow, Sendai Shirayuri Women’s College and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


East Asia drives the global economy. Taiwan is pivotal to the global semiconductor industry – essential to modern life. Taiwanese semiconductors power everything from TVs to cars, guided missiles to AI-bots. After Taiwan, neighbouring South Korea has the second-highest market share.

Meanwhile, despite the US and EU’s efforts to reduce their dependency on China, it remains by far the world’s biggest manufacturer. Global supply chains bring commodities, components, and finished goods in and out of the region through major sea-trade routes south to the straits of Malacca and east across the Pacific to the Americas.

Against this tense backdrop, later this year the US will elect a new president. As the incumbent, Joe Biden, struggles in the polls, his rival Donald Trump’s prospects are improving. This is leading to grave and growing concerns in Europe that Trump will abandon Ukraine – and perhaps even Nato itself, overturning decades of security stability in Europe. But what of east Asia?

Cornerstone for Asian security

The security of east Asia – and thus the stability of the global economy – is predicated on a country we have yet to mention: Japan. The US-Japanese alliance has defined Asian security since the early days of the cold war and US troops have had a continuous presence on Japanese soil since 1945.

According to the 1960 treaty on which it is based, if Japan is attacked, the US must come to its defence. The obligation is not mutual, however, thanks to the pacifist clause US officials inserted into Japan’s postwar constitution.

The intention was to prevent Japan becoming a future threat, and the result is that Japan became an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, with US military bases scattered across the archipelago.

This “Pax Americana” enabled decades of regional peace and economic growth – albeit on terms dictated by the US. For decades, Japan was a sleeping partner in all this: enjoying the peace and prosperity without spending much on its own military or getting involved in US adventurism.

But after years of US pressure to remilitarise, today Japan is increasing military spending and taking a regional leadership role. This is Japan’s response to a rising China, relative US decline, and increasingly isolationist American public opinion – not to mention Trump’s “America first” rhetoric.

‘Proactive Pacifism’

Today’s changes are the culmination of decades of drift from pacifism to “normality”. Following Shinzo Abe’s return to power in 2012, Japan rolled out a new security doctrine in the form of its “proactive pacifism”.

As part of this shift, in December 2022 Japan introduced a revised national security strategy and new security institutions such as a National Security Council. It has lifted a long-standing ban on arms exports, initiated new regional security partnerships, modernised its military, and reinterpreted the postwar pacifist constitution to allow for Japan’s participation in collective self-defence operations alongside allies.

Most importantly, Abe’s government crafted its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, thus engineering a new geopolitical space that has defined the parameters for rebalancing China’s rise.

These changes were designed to increase Japan’s influence within the context of the US alliance. Then came Trump’s 2016 presidential election. The rhetoric of “America first” increased fears of abandonment in Tokyo. Given the alternative scenario – facing China alone – the Abe government worked hard to keep Trump onside, making trade and diplomatic concessions, and pledging to “make the alliance even greater”.

After Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the final nail in the coffin of Japan’s postwar pacifism. On the first anniversary of the invasion, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned, “Ukraine today could be east Asia tomorrow,” implying that Taiwan could be next.

Continuing where Abe left off, he pledged to increase military spending as well as lifting the remaining restrictions on arms exports, while strengthening Japan’s relations with Nato.

Increasing global instability has prompted Japan to abandon its low-profile, economy-first approach, seeking instead to shape regional and even global geopolitics. By expanding its security role, it has made itself even more indispensable to the US, which sees China as the primary long-term threat.

So, while Japan may fear a second Trump presidency, the risk of abandonment is lower than that faced by America’s allies in Europe. Still, the long-term trend would appear to be that the US is pulling back and expecting its allies to do more. Meanwhile the instability of US politics in an election year means that nothing can be taken for granted.

As the US recedes, can Japan fill the gap? Or will its ambitions exceed its capabilities? Already, plans to further develop its military are hampered by a shrinking economy and a shrinking population. While China faces similar issues, its economy is over four times bigger than that of Japan’s, and its population is ten times the size.

Thus, the only realistic way for Japan to balance China, manage North Korea, and maintain its regional position, is for the US to stay engaged. And even that might not be enough to prevent China from invading Taiwan. The future of the region, and of the global economy, hangs in the balance.The Conversation

Paul O’Shea, Senior Lecturer, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University and Sebastian Maslow, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Sendai Shirayuri Women’s College. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807543)
1 month ago

Japans big problem is a profound level of bureaucracy, that many just be the worst in the world, added to the single biggest national debt problem of any modern nation ( around 265% of GDP and rising)..Its it’s also go one of the worst demographic timebomb of any modern democracy causes by an unwillingness to make any form of structural reform is well know as its is ultra conservative social nature ( its the most unwelcoming of all modern economies to inward movement of people and investment). All in a all Japan has a big structural issue that will mean… Read more »

Grizzler
Grizzler (@guest_807690)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

“something will give at some point” Well as long as it not the manhole covers – not at that price anyway …
I wouldn’t be broadcasting how expensive they are BTW – you’ll have whole tranches of UK based ‘travelling’ scrap men booking trips and Mercx ships for that bounty.

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807696)
1 month ago
Reply to  Grizzler

Interestingly they do sell them off after they are no longer used, you can buy them ( used) for around £300…each one is an individual work of art ..some of them are amazing…look up Japanese manhole covers. To be honest I’m looking at importing one myself.

Grizzler
Grizzler (@guest_807698)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

They seem to be overly intricate & a waste of money -no wonder their GDP is fucked.
but yes Id buy one ..

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807702)
1 month ago
Reply to  Grizzler

Yes japan is a in nasty death spiral from an economic point of view and I’m not sure they can dig themselves out of it, as they will not even admit they are in the hole…to buy a house in Japan is to loss almost all the money you invested in it ( houses in Japan depreciate like consumer goods)…It refuses to show any fiscal responsibility simply buying whatever it wants, it’s corporations are obsessed with perfection over profit, it’s got one of the worst demographic timebomb..but refuses to allow any immigration ( if you are not ethnically Japanese you… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Jonathan
ABCRodney
ABCRodney (@guest_807544)
1 month ago

Very interesting and informative article and reminds us of the other side of the “Threat Coin”. In Europe we are very much focussed on what is happening in Ukraine, Gaza and the Arabian Sea and how those affect us. We tend to overlook or ignore the much bigger threat from China, that may be due to distance, SEP or just sheer “how the heck do we deal with a problem the size of China”. Simple fact is Japan moving to “pro active Pacifism” is just the logical next step to a long slow build up in Japans Defence capabilities and… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807555)
1 month ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

You must remember japan does not just have a china issue it also has a Russia issue and still has an ongoing territorial dispute. Basically japan feels that Russia occupies part of Japan..the four disputed islands have been occupied by Russia since 1945 and are visible from Japan ( the Russians and Japanese can actually see each other across disputed territory).

we sometimes forget that Russia is as much a pacific Asian power as a European one….infact its one of the key thing’s Europeans forget about Russia…it’s not European, it’s as much culturally Asian as European.

Andy reeves
Andy reeves (@guest_814015)
1 month ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

The U.j must look to move away from the SSN and design and build a modern Oberon type boat. The few astute submarine we have will always be somewhere else other than at home . A modern o eron /up holder class like design shouldn’t cost the earth to build them, they’d have small crews, be fairly cheap to operate

Mickey
Mickey (@guest_807548)
1 month ago

Their armed forces definitely show that they have abandoned the ‘self-defence’ force that they had. Their future defence projects are impressive as well. Having a proficient armed forces in the Knick of time when you have North Korea, China and Russia in the neighborhood is fortuitous.

Last edited 1 month ago by Mickey
Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807561)
1 month ago
Reply to  Mickey

This is not new or in the knick of time…You have to remember from around 1960 onward Japan has significantly increased its navy due to its perception of china and Russia as very close and untrustworthy neighbours…So when the rest of the west suffered the “end of history” nonsense from 1991 and started cutting its naval forces from 1990 onward( because history had ended and the west had won..such BS” ..Japan has kept on expanding ( mainly due to china)..the only real difference in its stance now is a philosophical one and really it’s not much different, as Japan only… Read more »

Mickey
Mickey (@guest_807636)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

As you said, building up their forces since the 90s to what they are today. So it is Knick of time considering the military preparedness of many states in the world currently and also the trouble that the world is seeing today.

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807661)
1 month ago
Reply to  Mickey

Interestingly the UK and french defence budgets have aways been a good degree larger than the Japanese defence budget…in real terms as well as percentage of GDP…the issue is that both France and the Uk have had to do a lot of different things with its defence budge…Japan has Simply been able to focus on an intense green water conflict with either china or Russia on its doorstep..that focus. buys a lot of stuff…the UK and France..have to think globally and that means 1) nuclear tipped ballistic missile submarines 2) carrier based fixed wing aviation 3) nuclear powered attack submarines… Read more »

Mickey
Mickey (@guest_807667)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

All good points you have made.

The Japanese helicopter destroyers are being modified to house VTOL F35 fighters giving them a much further strike reach. South Korea is doing the same with theirs.

These sample upgrades that thier armed forces are conducting causes pause to most adversaries and also gives the US some freedom to concentrate elsewhere in the pacific once completed.

I am confident the Japanese armed forces can take on Godzilla when he comes back around again. 🙂

David Owen
David Owen (@guest_807556)
1 month ago

I know since the second world war, Japan after the war rebuilt itself and become a world leading economy, they have never sought after all these years to become aggressive to anyone ,china has shown its true face or more so communists looking for trouble that run china ,Japan will be a cut throat razor to china’s throat ,good luck to Japan of whom I admire greatly, but the political fxxxxxxg crap we have if they were on fire I would not piss on them ,bottom line Japan knows what is coming and taking steps to do something about it… Read more »

Andrew D
Andrew D (@guest_807562)
1 month ago
Reply to  David Owen

Were our government is coming from on Defence is Ridiculous 🙄 nothing seems to wake them up.

David Owen
David Owen (@guest_807592)
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Andrew, your spot on ,

Frank62
Frank62 (@guest_807571)
1 month ago

A resolute NO to the CCPs territorial ambitions & existing illegal seizure of the SCS atols is essential to deter any further illegal, even genocidal acts(Such as would likely happen if the PLA invaded Taiwan). People must be given peace & freedom, not threatened with oppression & tyranny. The world is not a game of Risk. If the USA withdraws from being de facto world policeman, at least by weakening allied commitments, then all the brutal dictators are left free to ravage across the planet. Our European fetish for the illusory “peace dividend” is way past its sell by date… Read more »

Frank62
Frank62 (@guest_807625)
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank62

That should be opt out, not out out. Ran out of time to edit.

Nevis
Nevis (@guest_807594)
1 month ago

Japan must have greater concerns than anyone over Americas potential isolationism. They have 2 large adversaries with expansion on their minds on there doorstep. Can see them looking for a new best friend if that is the route America chooses.

DanielMorgan
DanielMorgan (@guest_807603)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nevis

The US is not going “isolationist”. That’s a European canard. The US has absolutely no problem with Japan and its other allies in the Pacific and the US is very heavily focused and committed to their defense. The US is shifting forces to the Pacific to meet the Chinese threat. What irks the US is a number of European nations refusing to contribute to their own defense and expecting the US to spend its resources and commit its blood to their defense. The Chinese threat is much more formidable than the Russian one. The Europeans could aid global stability and… Read more »

harryb
harryb (@guest_807605)
1 month ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

Like it did in Afghanistan at the costs of hundreds of European lives. only for America to shaft us at the end when they got board of it. America cares only for itself.

David Owen
David Owen (@guest_807606)
1 month ago
Reply to  harryb

Exactly

Simon
Simon (@guest_807634)
1 month ago
Reply to  harryb

Hb from memory America gave due notice they were pulling out of Afghan. A thousand years of occupation may have been required to make that place a dreamy western democracy. I give way to those who have served, they have their own insights.

DaveyB
DaveyB (@guest_807931)
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon

My thoughts are that the general population of Afghanistan are in the main very hospitable and open to new ideas, especially when they see a benefit. However what is holding them back are their Imans. In the main they are trained in Pakistan. Where the schools have an underlying anti-western ethos. When we were doing the meet and greets with villagers. Bringing in doctors, engineers etc. it was the Imans sticking to their dogma, holding back any progress or development. My personal feelings were that the Imans were the major hurdle. Where they felt we were usurping their power and… Read more »

Simon
Simon (@guest_807972)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB

DB thank you for reply. So hard to know how Afghan could have turned out. Maybe us or the neocons could have produced a democracy or maybe settled for a functioning tribal society observing a level of human rights. All the neighbours of Afghan not friendly to western ambitions there.

Simon
Simon (@guest_807633)
1 month ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

Europe should do more to defend itself.

Nevis
Nevis (@guest_807641)
1 month ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

Not at all. I couldn’t agree more. Uk and the EU should do more. But the US does have previous for going it alone and if that’s the path you choose then so be it. It’s not a dig. Just an observation. Countries like ours and Japan should prepare accordingly. In fairness to Japan they appear to be and we don’t. Have a good day!

Grizzler
Grizzler (@guest_807689)
1 month ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

Can I just say ‘Jesus Christ’ …

Graham M
Graham M (@guest_807651)
1 month ago

Can we leave the navies of USA, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia to be a bulwark to Chinese expansionism and aggression?….and stay the heck out of it and focus on the Euro-Atlantic area?

Chris
Chris (@guest_807664)
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham M

As the Chinese are hacking UK elections and setting up bases in North Africa. Good luck with that.

Graham M
Graham M (@guest_807672)
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris

I am sure that GCHQ is doing their best to deal with Chinese hacking.

Not sure what we could do to prevent the Chinese establishing bases in North Africa – do you think we should be trying to stop them doing that? Good luck with that!

Jon
Jon (@guest_813123)
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham M

As long as we leave a vacuum, someone else will fill it.

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807679)
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham M

Unfortunately Graham, the NATO treaty as written and interpreted since 9/11 means it’s almost inevitable that a U.S. china war will end up triggering article 5…china will do something to the U.S. mainland as it cannot win a war without attacking the enemy at home. As soon as it does the US would trigger article 5 and there we are..Infact china will probably do something relatively quickly..it’s main offensive doctrine is based on taking the fight to the enemies home via all possible means to destroy its societal and political will to fight the war..this would include, terrorists attack, sabotage,… Read more »

Grizzler
Grizzler (@guest_807692)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

Interestng comments – Just to clarify is it Taiwan or Republic Of China- or does that depend on the point you are trying to make..

Jonathan
Jonathan (@guest_807700)
1 month ago
Reply to  Grizzler

It’s both..you can sort of use them interchangeably to be honest, but it is a bit inaccurate and sloppy…( as everyone is). It’s sort of like Great Britain and the United Kingdom…( infact it’s very similar the geographic name of the island is Taiwan and the formal name of the government is the republic of China…so the same as the UK and Great Britain terminology) It gets a bit complicated around Taiwan because you have to remember the Republic of China ( government of “Taiwan” ) also considers itself the government of the whole of china…and names itself the government… Read more »

Graham M
Graham M (@guest_807747)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan

The NATO Treaty and especially Article 5 has always been clear. An attack on one member nation requires all members to respond. If China attacks the US, then Article 5 is triggered. I don’t believe the US has to trigger Article 5 – NATO’s North Atlantic Council does that. Members can respond in whatever way they want to an Article 5 shout – that is a national decision – theoretically a member might send a strongly worded ‘note of protest’ to the Chinese government and apply some sanctions! But when the NAC called Article 5 last time, all NATO nations… Read more »

Jon
Jon (@guest_813133)
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham M

The attack has to be in the confines of mainland North America, Europe or certain European islands. As Jonathan pointed out, it’s an attack on the US homeland (excluding Hawaii) that can trigger article 5. However, if China took Guam for instance, you’d better buy your stocks of toilet paper, because it would just be a matter of time.

Henry Lamb
Henry Lamb (@guest_807678)
1 month ago

And so should we… (UK)

George
George (@guest_807681)
1 month ago

It’s good news, Another nation increasing it’s military might to oppose the evil CCP.