A country steeped in pacifism after World War II has awakened to a world mired in war and the threat of coercion around its borders. As recently as 2020, at the end of Abe Shinzo’s long stint as prime minister, there was talk of a path-breaking Japan-China summit marked by Xi Jinping’s state visit, the halo of the Abe-Putin “honeymoon” had not yet faded, and North Korea was just a year removed from a surge in diplomacy, in which Japan had sought to take part. Japanese had hoped to distance themselves from the Sino-US tensions blamed partly on Donald Trump’s “America First” trade policy and from the Russo-US tensions over European security separate from Russia’s behavior in Asia. As the COVID-19 pandemic kicked into high gear, North Korea was isolating itself and security threats were not in the forefront. Much changed in a few years.

The transformation for Japan had begun earlier, as Abe Shinzo rushed to make it a “normal country” able to manage great power rivalries and regional instability. He saw the threat from North Korea clearly, urged Washington to take the maritime threat from China more seriously, and tried to head off a threat from Russia and a Sino-Russian alignment. Abe’s legacy helped to build the foundation for countering threat as they intensified into the first years of the 2020s.

As Japanese were growing concerned about a Taiwan contingency in light of saber-rattling by China and about an upsurge in provocative missile tests by North Korea, a game-changer awoke genuine alarm when Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine. What happens in Europe does not stay in Europe, Japanese concluded, perceiving the danger in Taiwan in a new light, while watching with alarm Moscow and Beijing’s defense of Pyongyang at the UN Security Council. As the Biden administration rallied countries to confront Russia, Japan climbed on board, agreeing to economic sanctions and to a new priority for economic security, also targeting China, whose support for Russia’s cause and economy cast a more ominous light on the danger lurking in Asia.

Japanese feel besieged. To the south, China’s seizure of Taiwan, total domination of the South China Sea, and capture of the Senkaku Islands would leave Japan without strategic space. Even worse, fear of Chinese designs on Okinawa in its entirety (connected to historical narratives on the Ryukyu Islands and their people’s ties to Imperial China) would dismember the very state that gives Japan a key part of its identity. Moreover, all of this could be set in motion by a war scenario over Taiwan in the not-too-distant future. To the west, North Korea’s unquenched thirst for reunification through coercion together with vengeance against Japan would remove all strategic space where a dagger points squarely at Japan. The 2024 language from Pyongyang about rejecting further diplomacy with South Korea puts a military solution in the forefront. To the north, Russia appears less menacing in Asia, but its recent rhetoric about Japan raises new cause for concern, as does its military bond with North Korea and tightened quasi-alliance with China, including joint military exercises surrounding Japan. Shocking talk of Hokkaido not being part of Japan but belonging to the Ainu, exacerbates the threatening tenor of Russia’s narrative.

The three articles that follow cover first the threat perceptions focused on China, drawing on newspaper and journal articles from the winter of 2023-24; then on the perceptions centered on Russia, reflecting on the surge of writings since the 2022 full-scale invasion, and finally on perceptions of North Korea’s threat despite Kishida Fumio’s efforts to engage Kim Jong-un in diplomacy with the return of Japanese abductees foremost in mind. The article on North Korea delves into comparisons with South Korean threat perceptions. All of these appear shortly after Kishida’s state visit to Washington to showcase an upgrade in military cooperation in response to such threats. Attention needs to turn not only to what Japan is doing but to why it is reacting.

Gilbert Rozman,Japanese Perceptions of the Threat from China”

Behind the façade of bilateral summitry and invitations, the mood in Japan was darkening toward China. An aura of expectancy lasted to late 2020 as Abe left office still appealing for Xi to make a state visit. All trace of such upbeat diplomacy is gone; hopelessness has continuously deepened.

In at least four ways the perceived threat to Japan differs from that to the United States. The geopolitical danger is greater, economic interdependence operates differently, the historical context is distinctive, and national identity plays a strikingly different role. Japan has struggled more to cut a deal with China, while also becoming more unnerved about the lack of success. Japanese share the impression that their country is a special target of China for historical as well as geopolitical reasons. Revenge for past actions combined with ambitions to carve out a maritime sphere of control put Japan in the crosshairs, including the threat from coercion to seize the Senkaku Islands. Although many focus on “wolf warrior” rhetoric targeted elsewhere, Japanese detect something akin in language to demean Japan’s right to be a “normal nation.”

By 2020 many were openly hostile to Xi being hosted in a state visit. If some called for this visit to hedge against Donald Trump’s callous disregard of Japan and other US allies or to support a fragile Japanese economy, most had decided that China had changed, putting geopolitics above all else. Tarumi Hideo, Japanese ambassador to China for three years to December 2023, returned home with a tale of isolation in his post. He wrote of security trumping economics, making visa applications harder for Japanese business personnel even as Chinese local governments urged them to come and invest, and of little accessibility during most of his time representing Japan.

China’s more positive tone since the spring of 2023 is attributed to a desire to create an illusion of positivity for better economic ties when substantively China is adhering to hardline positions that matter. Tarumi traced the Chinese appeal to boost relations to Wang YI’s spring messaging, whereas Japan responded that concrete issues needed to be resolved, including the Fukushima water release marine product ban. Despite its economic reasons to reboot relations, Chins put national security first, as in its 2023 “anti-spy law.” The arrest that fall of a prominent Japanese business leader had a big impact on the business community and bilateral relations, Tarumi said. A pessimistic mood results also from the inability to find common language with the Chinese. it is precisely Chinese refusal to acknowledge the key facts behind regional tensions that convinces Japanese to draw closer to the US since dialogue with China is now futile on strategic questions.

Tarumi reviewed the Japanese government’s handling of the Senkaku incursions by China, insisting that China’s explanation that Japan was responsible for changing the status quo by nationalizing the islands is incorrect. The dividing line occurred in 2008 from China’s actions, which were met weakly by Japan. Especially in 2010 when the LDP was out of power the prime ministers deferred to China, as revealed in the internal conversations, which Taruma details. A recurrent theme in recent months is retrospective coverage of perceived mistakes in China policy. For example, the decision to send the Emperor to China in 1992 is reviewed. Just after China declared its control over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, a half-year debate ensued on the decision to mark the 20th anniversary with a visit. Proceeding, Japan conveyed its weakness.

Japan’s ambassador to Australia Yamagami Shingo resigned in December 2023 after being subjected to attacks from Chinese diplomats. Kept from publicly responding by Japan’s foreign ministry, he responded in a February 2024 book on China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy.” The double whammy of Tarumi and Yamagami alerted Japanese to serious diplomatic troubles.

Japanese malaise was on full display as 2024 was beginning. Former ambassadors recounted how Japan was being disrespected by China, archival releases fueled recollections of decisions that exposed Japan’s lack of will to resist China’s assertive behavior, and ongoing developments raised consciousness of military, economic, and national identity threats. Limited outreach from Beijing feigning a return to normalcy in bilateral relations was met with unrealized demands for concrete action to deal with actual problems such as the costly boycott of all Japanese marine products or the chilling arrest of a Japanese pharmaceutical executive under the new, anti-spy law. There was no trace of the optimism over ties to China as recently as 2020 in plans for Xi to make a state visit, eying China’s response to Russian aggression and North Korean belligerence.

Japanese found many occasions to sharpen their negative images of China. Li Keqiang’s death reminded them of the path not taken when Xi Jinping sidelined his prime minister and strove for more complete one-man dictatorship. The anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death served to affirm comparisons of Xi to Mao, eclipsing memories of the reform and opening Deng had launched. The suspicious death of Alexei Navalny in prison elicited comparisons to Liu Xiaobo’s prison demise in China. But, above all, Russia’s war in Ukraine reverberated in alarm about China’s intentions toward Taiwan, kindling awareness of an age of war replacing the postwar peace.

James D. J. Brown,The Accomplice: Japanese Threat Perceptions of Russia”

Elucidating contemporary Japanese threat perceptions of Russia, Brown’s article is divided into three main sections. The first explains why Japanese policymakers still do not view Russia as a priority military threat. The second outlines why, despite this, Russia remains a major security concern, above all due to Moscow’s potential to play the role of accomplice to China and North Korea. A concluding section reviews Japan’s response to this unfolding security situation. 

The warmth of the era when Abe Shinzo promoted a “new approach” to Japan-Russia relations, has long since cooled. Even during that period, the Russian side never reciprocated Japan’s attempted embrace as the Kremlin saw little value in relations with Japan. In retaliation for Japan’s sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has officially labelled Japan “an unfriendly country” and has cancelled talks on a peace treaty, which has yet to be signed since the end of the Second World War. Vehemently criticizing the Japanese government, Russian officials call the efforts to build up the SDF “a return to the path of unbridled militarisation.” In keeping with this, the Russian embassy in asserted in social media that Japan, by backing the Ukrainian government, was supporting a Nazi regime for the second time in less than 100 years.

Whereas Russia’s “external and military activities… are perceived as the most significant and direct threat to security in the European region,” in the Indo-Pacific region Russia’s actions are categorized as simply “a strong security concern.” This outlook is reflected in Japan’s force deployments. Russia is no longer regarded as a promising partner, as was the case when the previous National Security Strategy was approved in 2013. However, Japan still does not see Russia as an imminent military threat. The attention span leaves little room for such a focus.

The proximity of Russian forces and the vehemence of its public statements might be taken to mean that Russia has both the capabilities and intention to directly threaten Japan militarily. This is a major concern, but not reaching the threshold of a pressing, military threat as made explicit in the National Security Strategy of December 2022, which views Russia in different ways depending on the geographic region. Whereas its “external and military activities… are perceived as the most significant and direct threat to security in the European region,” in the “Indo-Pacific region, including Japan,” its actions are categorized as “a strong security concern.”

Does redeployment for the war lessen Japan’s concern? Troop losses and redeployments may slow the pace of modernization of Russian military forces in the Far East. However, they are not large enough to change the overall picture. It remains the case that Russia retains substantial military forces in the vicinity of Japan and that these capabilities have increased markedly over the last two decades. Why then does Japan not see Russia as more of a direct military threat?  

Japanese security officials are busy managing what are perceived as existential threats, leaving little time to consider Russia. Even if serious tensions with China and North Korea did not exist, there would still be good reasons for Japan to be moderately relaxed about the challenge directly posed by Russia. First, despite the increase in capacity of recent decades, the size of the Russian armed forces in the Far East is still well below its Cold War peak. The capabilities deployed also suggests that Russia is not preparing for aggressive operations. Russia’s priority is to deny access to the Sea of Okhotsk, a key to its nuclear strategy, especially to the forces of the US Navy.

There is all the difference in the world between the Donbas and Hokkaido. With no Russian-speaking minority on Hokkaido, the Putin regime would lack any pretext for an attack. Japan’s alliance with the United States is another factor that makes a direct Russian military attack against Japanese territory extremely unlikely. Yet, more worrisome is the potential to serve as an accomplice to states that are seen as direct military threats; namely, China and North Korea.  

The greatest worry is Russia’s potential role in a Taiwan crisis. If China does invade Taiwan, Beijing may lean on Moscow to assist in diplomatic support at the United Nations and help to China to evade Western sanctions. In the military realm, it remains unlikely that Russian forces would directly participate in the attack. After all, Russia and China are not full-fledged military allies. Nonetheless, they could still assist China by means of coordinated action. For instance, if, just ahead of the Chinese invasion, the Russian Pacific Fleet were to carry out provocative maneuvers to the north of Japan, this would force the SDF to divert resources. Japan shares Western concerns that North Korean arms deliveries will exacerbate the conflict in Ukraine. Of even greater worry is what Russia may give North Korea in return, adding to the North’s threat.

A more pessimistic assessment would suggest that Russia, whose armed forces have invaded a sovereign neighbor and committed multiple war crimes, has cast aside any pretence of abiding by international law and would have no hesitation in further violating UN Security Council resolutions by providing North Korea with missile, satellite, and submarine technology. Added to this, the Kremlin may even welcome instability on the Korean Peninsula as it would create another international crisis to distract the United States and its allies from the war in Ukraine.   

As an accomplice, Russia represents a serious security concern for Japan, especially due to its potential to exacerbate regional crises over Taiwan and Korea. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened the norm against changing the international status quo by force. If Russia can win its war and if the economic and political consequences for Moscow appear manageable, Beijing and Pyongyang could judge that it is worth making a similarly aggressive gamble. Preventing Russian victory in Ukraine remains extremely important to Japan’s own security. As Kishida has often said, Ukraine today could be Asia tomorrow. China or North Korea could act similarly.

Kimura Kan, “Changing Perceptions of North Korea in Japan and Japan-US-South Korea Cooperation”

One driving force behind the remarkable shift in Japanese foreign policy in just a few years has been mounting recognition of the threat coming from North Korea. This has contributed to trilateralism with the US as well as new bilateral ties with South Korea. Focusing on Japanese perceptions of the threat from North Korea, this article explains its impact on both the US-led trilateralism and the quick turnabout toward bilateralism. It focuses especially on the contrast in Japanese media and Diet perceptions of the relative threats from North Korea and China, saying that the longstanding divergence in outlooks in the Japan-US and US-ROK alliances endures.

By 2019 the expression became widely accepted that Japan-ROK relations had plummeted to the “worst they had been in the postwar era” (sengo saiaku no kankei). No matter whether a mood of diplomacy with North Korea existed or it was collapsing, Japan-ROK ties had suffered. The deepening threat from North Korea was not the cause of the rapprochement achieved.

The Biden administration urgently sought a turnabout in Japan-ROK relations. It found an extraordinary level of camaraderie with the Kishida administration, showcased in their close cooperation on Russia and China. Yet, the US-ROK gap was greater, and the Japan-ROK rift lingered as a thorn in the path of minilateralism sought by Biden. A turning point to improved Japan-ROK ties came on March 6, 2003, when the Korean government issued a statement resolving the forced labor problem through a plan to have an umbrella foundation under the Korean government pay compensation instead. Just afterwards, through Yoon ’s skillful performance in visiting Japan, Japan’s government and public opinion abruptly turned positive.

For the Yoon administration, the direct objective of improving ties to Japan was less important than the value of this as a means to improve US ties, which, in turn, was driven by new security concerns. Russia had recently launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine, China was increasingly assertive in many spots such as Taiwan, and North Korea appeared ever more menacing. With attention turned to the widening scope of trilateralism beyond the traditional focus (albeit with limited actual trilateral interaction), it was possible not to keep at the center of the picture the upgraded agreement on how to respond to North Korea, a critical part of the new triangularity.

In 2023, Japan-ROK relations began to turn away from issues of historical consciousness and toward broad regional as well as global security issues, but the centerpiece of trilateralism with the United States remained North Korea. Not only was it not overlooked in this transition, but it was also foremost in the concrete plans for tightening triangular ties. After feeling marginalized in the face of an intensifying threat from the North, Japan in 2023 suddenly gained a large say in the collective response to its behavior. Its alarm had grown, but so too had its sense of involvement.

The basic security policies of the two US allies differ and, for that reason, the character of their respective alliances with the US is different. One historical basis was the focus of a divided state on the frontlines of the Cold War on strengthening ties with similarly situated states linked in an international anti-communist movement and centering the US-ROK alliance against the East. In contrast, during the Cold War, Japan chose a completely different security strategy, based on a “pacifist constitution” forsaking war and military activity while permanently discarding these in resolving disputes with another country. Security policy could not exceed the limits of self-defense. The Japan-US alliance had no meaning beyond an alliance to defend Japan. It would have been impossible to have military relations with South Korea despite North Korean threats.

The lack of correspondence of security policies carried over to the post-Cold War period. With democratization, South Korea discarded its anti-communism and groped to respond to a new international environment, making economic relations central and narrowly confining security interest to the neighborhood of the Korean Peninsula. After not having diplomatic relations with China and developing ties quickly from the time of normalization in 1992, China’s rapid rise in this period, South Korea allowed its economy to rapidly become increasingly dependent on it, such that in 2003 China surpassed Japan and the United States as South’s leading trade partner. At the same time, China’s rise as a security force was occurring, but this was taken less seriously than in Japan and the United States, while China was treated as concerned above all with a good environment for its economic rise and a force resisting destabilization from North Korea.

Whereas after the Cold War South Korea’s security interest narrowed from anti-communism on a global scale to the environs of the Korean Peninsula, Japan at the same time was broadening its security prism. For South Korea growing increasingly dependent on China economically the Japan-US alliance’s shift toward countering China added an additional difficulty. Japan-ROK relations deteriorated as Abe sought strengthen involvement in the Western Pacific with the United States in order to deter China, while Park explored cooperation with China economically and for her policy toward North Korea. At the same time, relations worsened over historical memory issues, arguably not unrelated to the opposing security outlooks in Tokyo and Seoul.

As Japan’s horizons broadened, South Korea’s narrowed, not so much because of concern that North Korea was growing more dangerous as due to aspirations to entice North Korea into a new round of diplomacy with transformative impact on Northeast Asian security prospects. In this way, Seoul intended to draw Beijing as well as Moscow into a regional framework along with Washington. This contradicted Tokyo and Washington’s intensifying pushback against the aggressive moves from Beijing as well as their thinking (apart from Trump’s year of diplomacy) about Pyongyang’s intentions. Amid an historical transformation, the two US allies had chosen completely different strategies in the post-Cold War period, reaching a peak in the late 2010s. In these circumstances, Japan-US-ROK trilateralism was stymied. To achieve this goal the two US alliances would have to be synchronized. When Yoon Suk-yeol took office proclaiming a “global pivotal state” that prospect finally came into view. This was not a result of a “conservative administration,” which prioritized relations with the United States. After all, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye had narrowly limited their foreign policy to the neighborhood of the Korean Peninsula. However, the Yoon administration came to understand that Sino-US competition had intensified, geopolitics were now unstable, and the risk had grown for economic security, putting Sino-US competition in the Indo-Pacific region at the center of the world situation.

Japan and South Korea remain well removed from a “triangular alliance” with the United States. One reason is the historical memory issue, stemming from deep distrust in the South over Japan’s past colonial control, but another reason interfering with a three-way alliance is the big difference in foreign policy and security policy between Tokyo and Seoul. In the Cold War era, the two US alliances had different objectives: one completely centered on the defense of Japan, the other significant for defending the border line between the East and West camps. In contrast, after the Cold War, Japan, which was adding to its national power, used the Japan-US alliance as an opportunity to be more active in international society, while the scope of South Korean diplomacy and security narrowed to the neighborhood of the Korean Peninsula.

Then, through the transition to the Yoon administration’s “global pivotal state” strategy, which accompanied a positive posture toward resolving the historical memory question, not only did Japan-ROK relations and accelerated trilateral linkages result from widening Korea’s vision of the world, also the character of the Japan-US and US-ROK alliances became more similar. As a result, it became possible to make linkages between the two. Even so, the discrepancy between the foreign policy and security policies of Japan and South Korea could not be completely overcome. As before, South Korea’s main threat is North Korea. Even a change in administration and North Korean “abandonment” of North-South unification did not lead to a fundamental shift. In contrast Japan’s interest in North Korea rapidly declined. Even in discussion of the threat, it became common to ask how this was connected to China and other threats.

How should efforts proceed toward further deepening Japan-ROK cooperation? Theoretically, there mainly exist two directions. One is to try to unify completely the threat consciousness of the two. Yet, even at a time of globalization, awareness of each country’s security threats has to be, to some degree, limited by geographical factors. A classical manifestation is the difference in threat consciousness toward North Korea and China in the two countries. Comparatively, in South Korean thinking, the Taiwan Straits is secondary to the North Korean question, while in Japan, by contrast, the North Korean threat is no more than secondary to the Taiwan Straits.

A second pathway could be followed. In conditions revolving around both North Korea and Taiwan amid a major international incident, both could appreciate the overlap in their shared threat and in a division of labor, each doing its part. They would each contribute to the other’s security and their common objective of maintaining a global, peaceful order. This is the same setup with the international order centered on the United States dividing responsibility of the European states facing Russia, and Japan, South Korea, and Australia facing China. Not only calling for support of the “Indo-Pacific” order, this would be no different than forging a fine division of labor to boost each other’s geopolitical position. The Japan-US-ROK trilateral has the character of an experimental platform for the framework of a new, international order.

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