Why Japan Is Readying for War Again

Japan’s remilitarization could be the beginning of the end of China’s much-vaunted rise.

American Japanese ships
American and Japanese ships conduct a joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan, June 1, 2017 (USN/Z.A. Landers)

Ironically, the final vote was accompanied by a fist fight but it’s official: Japan may go to war again. The third largest economy on Earth entering the geopolitical sphere as a military power is absolutely huge. For Beijing, it’s a disaster. For DC, it’s the geopolitical coup of the decade. And for Japan, it’s increasingly necessary.

But why, and how? Let’s get super.

But first, cliff notes. For the lazy

  • Defeated Japan, like defeated Germany, has been kept disarmed and on a tight leash since World War II for very specific reasons, few of which apply anymore.
  • Since America has run up against hard limits on its power, it must call upon reliable allies to help it maintain the world order and Japan passes the geopolitical litmus tests.
  • This is the beginning of a very new Pacific, one that will first and foremost confront and contain Chinese power.
  • But after that? It’s anyone’s guess but a Japan that may go to war will invariably question the orders of the superpower.

So Japan lost World War II and was forced to give up war which was a great idea at the time

After World War II, the victorious Allies toyed around with various schemes to ensure the Axis powers never dared wage war on them again. Italy’s mid-war switch saved it from harsher retribution but its two main allies did not fare as well. Germany was broken in half; its ruling Nazis were purged, arrested and sometimes executed. It lost large chunks of territory to the Poles and Russians.

Japan was a different situation; since it had surrendered before an invasion, its elites couldn’t be so easily rounded up and wiped out, nor did the Americans want it split up between the West and the Soviets. Instead, the victorious United States forced the Japanese emperor to sign a constitution that forbid his nation from war. To cement that in, they kept the emperor.

So a disarmed Japan became the linchpin for America’s power in East Asia, serving as a base for the Korean War while its economy toiled away at peaceful pursuits.

As Japan recovered, its economy blossomed: by the 1980s, America was seriously worried it would be outsmarted by its former adversary who seemed to be better at capitalism than Americans.

But Japan’s constitutional bar on war — and the fact that World War II’s Emperor Hirohito remained alive and well to help preserve it all the way to 1989 — kept the country defanged. While Japan always had the right to defend itself and kept a modern, but small, reserve force, in reality everyone knew that those forces would be of little use in a nuclear war. Instead, they preserved Japan’s hard-won military knowledge in a handful of elite academies, waiting to be called upon should a need arise.

But conditions have changed, with the Middle East in meltdown, Russia getting aggressive and China getting rich

After 1991, American power surged forth into regions it had never been: Central Asia, Eastern Europe and even Africa. But the hard limits of America’s capabilities are now coming to the fore. After the Cold War, America assumed it could apply steady pressure to troublesome territories and eventually reorder them as it seemingly had in Europe. These notions were reinforced by easy victories in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf in the 90s.

But beginning with the Afghan War and continuing to the wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq today, it’s become clear that America’s might has its limits. Much like colonial Britain and France, America has rightfully concluded it is too expensive to try to reorder certain parts of the world to perfection. Instead, like the late colonial empires, it’s leaning on local elites to help out.

And Japan fits just about every geopolitical bill America has.

To help understand that, contrast it with Germany, who does not

German elites have two political heritages: one in the West, once dominated by the Americans, and the other in the East, once dominated by the Russians. Angela Merkel grew up in Soviet-occupied East Germany; she is more amenable to Russian interests than the Americans would like. Such a connection opens the possibility of a bridge between Berlin and Moscow, both of whom have use for one another. Russia can provide Germany with vast quantities of raw material, while Germany’s manufacturing and technological bases can solve a great number of Russian problems.

Moreover, as the largest economy in Europe, Germany has the potential to dominate the continent and to utilize the EU as a German geopolitical vehicle. On a long enough timeline, this may involve Russia entering the EU but not NATO. Such a feat would be a disaster for American policy and break a key pillar of the international order: thou shalt not unify Europe.

For that reason, American policymakers and diplomats are not keen to see a reenergized and rearmed Germany; such a force could hijack the EU one day.

But Japan is alone and at threat which makes it valuable

Japan’s value comes as a great counterbalance to China, Russia and North Korea. It has no heritage of occupation by any of those powers: its political system actually has direct links to the days when Japan swallowed up Korea and waged murderous war on China. Japanese elites do not have a political memory of occupation by any of America’s rivals, only stories of war and conflict. As such, it doesn’t take much convincing to get Japan to build a fleet designed to blow up Chinese warships.

Japan has no EU that it could potentially turn into a geopolitical rival to the United States — its prosperity remains dependent on America’s nuclear umbrella and US-patrolled trade routes. The threat of it becoming an independent force able to once more challenge America is more remote than Germany; only after China subsides as a threat might that happen, an event that is probably decades off.

Also unlike Germany, Japan has no nearby neighbors it could reply on to replace the United States. Germany has both the French and British nuclear arsenals that can act as a failsafe against the loss of the US. But Japan is on its own.

Thus the great incentive for both Tokyo and Washington to raise the Rising Sun again overseas

America gets a powerful allied military that can stymie China; Japan gets its old independence back and a greater degree of security that it needs in the face of Beijing’s sudden aggressiveness. Moreover, Japan doesn’t pose the same long-term geopolitical threat to the United States as its former Axis partner, since a suddenly upitty Japan could be contained by the United States much better than an upstart Germany.

Japan, meanwhile, has suffered two “Lost Decades” of flat growth. A renewed defense industry could well kickstart Japan’s economy again, something that would benefit both its trade partners in the Pacific as well as Japan itself.

This new Japan is likely the beginning of the end of China’s much-vaunted rise

China’s obvious juggernaut qualities have raised alarms all along the Pacific and now the most powerful force besides the United States will be openly arrayed against it. To catch up to the combined might of both Japan and America will take decades and require both DC and Tokyo to make repeated and massive mistakes. It’s deeply unlikely they’ll do so; both are filled with experienced statesmen and soldiers.

Instead, China’s rise is now being brought to an abrupt halt. Even if Russia and China formally ally, Russian Pacific power is weak; its Pacific Fleet rots at Vladivostok, a relic of Soviet glories. North Korea is negated by South Korea. While Indonesia has potential, it won’t soon counterbalance Japan, assuming Beijing can convince Jakarta that China is no threat to it as well.

This won’t sit well with Chinese elites who we can safely assume will try to scare Japan off from militarizing too much. That won’t matter; unless China commits to nuclear war, it can’t stop Japan rebuilding carrier fleets and readying new war technologies.

This may well lead to a more peaceful Pacific in the long run; should Chinese elites conclude an arms race is dumb (which it is), a Pacific underpinned by trade and patrolled by combined fleets under American dominance could well be in the offing.

But then there’s the other scenario which is a hand that bites its feeder

A rearmed Japan will be a Japan that will question the United States and such questions will invariably lead to breaks between them. Worry over China will unite them but should China recede as a threat, an American-Japanese rivalry will likely come to the fore. There’s not much for that; human nature remains constant and nation states bring out murderous traits in all of us.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 21, 2015.