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Why Japan and South Korea Are Arming Up

It’s too soon to call it a new cold war. But the conflict in Ukraine is changing defense policies in East Asia in brand new ways.

The American news media have barely noticed, given their (justly) vast coverage of the war in Ukraine, but other hot spots are also brewing in east Asia. In the last month, Japan has taken a huge step away from its anti-military tradition, doubling its defense budget and asking the U.S. for long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, while South Korea’s president has talked about building nuclear weapons.

These moves have been motivated by a growing belligerence on the part of China and North Korea, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the main driving force. Long-standing but furtive hawkish rumblings in Tokyo and Seoul have begun to morph into bold statements and active policy.

“The war in Ukraine is framing all of this,” said Daniel Sneider, lecturer in Asia studies at Stanford University, who is currently doing research and reporting in Japan. “The idea that the aggressive use of force can still happen—and could happen here—has turned people’s heads.”

The effect has galvanized not just elite attention but the popular mood. Japanese TV news, which often pays little attention to the rest of the world, has recently been dwelling for hours on the war in Ukraine. Russia’s stepped-up naval exercises off Japan’s coast, along with its continuing dispute over the Kuril Islands in the northern Pacific, have intensified the nervousness. “No one thinks Russia is going to invade Japan, but there’s a growing sense of threat,” Sneider said, “the notion of a ‘turning point’”—the same phrase that Germany has used since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—“that has allowed the government to do things that they had been moving toward, and to do so more rapidly.”

In December, the Japanese government released an official National Security Strategy, its first such document in a decade. It also doubled its defense budget, from 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent, and asked the U.S. to supply nearly $50 billion worth of cruise missiles with the range to hit targets in China and North Korea (these would be Japan’s first “counter-strike” weapons). Japan has also approved an American plan to transform a unit of U.S. Marines in Okinawa into a “littoral regiment,” capable of mounting offensives along the region’s islands and coastlines.

Together, this amounts to a very big deal. Only in 2014 did Japan “reinterpret” Article 9 of its constitution, which banned war under whatever circumstances, to allow its military to help defend allies. (The constitution was written in 1947 in the wake of Imperial Japan’s surrender and the reinvention of the country, under the victorious Allies’ purview, as a democracy.) Though the military—called the Self-Defense Forces—is large, with 250,000 active-duty personnel, it has never fired a shot in anger since 1945. Nor does it export weapons (though it has recently supplied Ukraine with items like mine-detectors).

This new attitude, which began to take hold a few years ago, when Shinzo Abe was prime minister, was motivated by the gradually perceived need to deter, and if necessary counter, an expansive China and North Korea. But the changes accelerated and hardened into policy under his successor, Fumio Kishida, who took office in Oct. 2021, as Putin was mobilizing troops for his invasion. Kishida reemphasized the shift in a White House meeting with President Biden in January of this year.

The National Security Strategy, which was signed in December, doesn’t even mention China until the eighth page of its 36 pages. The document begins by indicting Russia, whose aggression against Ukraine, it charges, has “breached the very foundations of the rules that shape the international order.” More specifically, the document states: “A similar situation may arise in the future in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia.” The resulting challenges to Japan’s security are “as severe and complex” as at any time “since the end of World War II,” the document continues. So, Japan must improve its abilities “to defend itself on its own,” while also cementing the U.S.-Japanese alliance as the “cornerstone” of its security—including the extension of America’s nuclear deterrent to protect Japan.

Kishida has been able to sell the newly assertive policy to the Japanese public, in part because he is seen as less militaristic than Abe. Despite the country’s reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the strategy remains adamantly opposed to building a Japanese nuclear arsenal—a strict prohibition, given Japan’s history as the only country hit by nuclear bombs in wartime. Kishida was born in Hiroshima, the target of America’s first atomic bomb, and will host the G-7 summit this May in his hometown, where he plans to emphasize nuclear non-proliferation.

The brake on South Korea’s nuclear temptations is not so firm. President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office last spring, has not only abandoned his predecessor’s hopes of détente with the North, but recently mentioned, in a public speech, that he might build a nuclear arsenal to deter an attack by North Korea—which has enough enriched uranium for at least a dozen atom bombs and the missiles needed to launch them.

Yoon backpedaled a bit when allies in Washington and elsewhere popped their eyeballs in alarm, but the idea has its advocates. Some analysts at the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank, have formed the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy (ROK standing for Republic of Korea), a group of several dozen scientists and strategists who are making the case for a South Korean A-bomb.

The context of this concern is not only the rising military power of China and North Korea but also growing concerns about whether the United States really would fight to defend South Korea in case of an attack. “Fear of abandonment is a familiar theme in Japan and South Korea,” said Sneider. The isolationists in the House and the possible return of Trump—who was set to withdraw all troops from South Korea had he won in 2020—are making many in Tokyo and Seoul feel more vulnerable still.

As with Japan, the war in Ukraine is aggravating South Korea’s security situation too. Russia, which is running out of artillery shells, has been buying many of them from North KoreaIn return, Russia is sending North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong un, plenty of oil. As a result, Kim is feeling unbounded and is acting that way too.

Japan and South Korea are both completely dependent on the United States for their security. Japan has no choice but to cuddle up still closer to its Washington protectors. South Korea is doing the same but is also talking more openly about going it alone, if necessary—hence the talk of nukes, still a subject off limits to Japan.

The impact of these newly assertive policies is as yet unclear. Russia, which is now implacably hostile to the United States, is turning up the heat, at least rhetorically. (Its military is too distracted to mount real threats on its Asian border.)

China, however, is a different matter. One could imagine Chairman Xi Jinping escalating his pressures across the region, but one could also imagine him seeking ways to calm the waters. Senior U.S. and Chinese officials are looking for avenues of engagement in any case. President Biden met with Xi in Bali in November and has talked about a possible summit in the future. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Beijing in February for a meeting with his counterparts. Xi recently appointed a new foreign minister, Qin Gang, the former ambassador to Washington, who at least speaks in a friendlier tone about improving U.S.-China relations.

M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at M.I.T. and a specialist on China’s military, wrote in an email that  Beijing’s “pivot to present a more likeable image to the world” is “mostly superficial,” designed mainly to lower the heat “and put wedges between the U.S. and various allies.”

However, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, who is currently traveling in the region, thinks there might be genuine ambivalence in China’s actions and behavior. “China is surprised by the steps Tokyo is taking in the defense and security realm and isn’t quite sure how to respond,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, Glaser said, Chinese officials are stressing the very strong trade ties with Japan as a way to strengthen its peace message. Beijing’s chief Asian diplomat told the chairman of Japan’s chamber of commerce last week that these ties were “a major foundation and bright spot” of their relationship.

It is unlikely that South Korea will start building nukes any time soon, and it is not clear how fully Japan will implement its newly assertive defense policies. The Japanese parliament is divided on whether to pay for the defense budget hike with new taxes. And while U.S. officials are pleased with the new direction, some wish  more attention were paid to prosaic basics. For instance, the purchase Tomahawk cruise missiles are welcome, but Japan’s military lacks the command-control and surveillance systems to guide the missiles to their targets. This would require a joint U.S.-Japan military command, which doesn’t exist at the moment. Recent articles in The Economist and War On the Rocks also note that Japan has little to no defenses against a cyberattack, which China, Russia, or North Korea would certainly mount in a war. It also needs to boost the number of all-volunteer troops, though there is no policy as yet to boost pay or offer any other incentives.

In the past year, geopolitical dynamics have shifted in eastern Asia as well as in eastern Europe, and the two shifts are affecting each other. But it is too soon to call what’s happening a global new cold war, much less the prelude to World War III. There is still time for Washington and Beijing to find some paths of cooperation. The war in Ukraine is far from settled one way or another. It is unclear whether the adoption of stronger military postures in Tokyo and Seoul will deter Beijing and Pyongyang–or trigger a spiral of countermoves.

The world is, clearly, more tense and dangerous, but it could spin in any number of directions.

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