Fumio Kishida is by nature a dovish diplomat, but surrounded by increasingly hostile regimes in China, Russia and North Korea, Japan’s prime minister has little choice but to reshape his nation’s defences.
For more than 70 years Japanese prime ministers have entrusted the safety of their people to the security alliance with the US, the economic pragmatism of their neighbours and to an inexperienced military restrained by a pacifist constitution.
But now, Kishida must urgently answer the question of whether the country is truly able to defend itself and respond to potential regional conflict.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Kishida said he would carry out an extensive review of Japan’s defence capabilities in light of “an increasingly tough security environment in east Asia” including advances in North Korean missile technology, China’s military presence and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We need to do a thorough examination of whether Japan’s defence capability is adequate or not,” Kishida said. “We will be fully prepared to respond to any possible scenario in east Asia to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people.”
The results of the defence review will be unveiled in December when Japan outlines a new national security strategy for the first time in almost a decade.
The government already plans to boost its defence budget by roughly 11 per cent to more than ¥6tn ($41bn) for the year to March 2024. It is considering developing first-strike capabilities against enemy bases and wants to acquire homegrown cruise missiles that would have a range of more than 1,000km, allowing it to strike targets within North Korea or China.
Last week, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, while Tokyo’s ties with Russia have all but collapsed following the invasion of Ukraine. The war has also forced Tokyo to seriously consider the possibility that China could use force against Taiwan.
Kishida declined to comment on how Japan would respond if China invaded Taiwan, but he pointed to his country’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a potential template for how it would address conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.
“I believe that the security of Asia is inseparable from that of Europe,” he said. “As the only Asian member of the Group of Seven, we are working with the G7 as well as many other countries to impose tough sanctions against Russia and to continue support for Ukraine. I hope that such a response will send a proper message to east Asia, and especially to China.”
Kishida highlighted the difficulty Tokyo faces in balancing economic ties and military tensions with Beijing as political debate in Washington and elsewhere focuses on possible “decoupling” in the global economy and deepening divisions between China and the US.
Early evidence of this decoupling process has emerged in US policy on semiconductors, which includes measures to restrict the flow of American technology to China and efforts to entice Japanese and South Korean chipmakers to build factories on US soil.
How to deal with Beijing, said Kishida, was becoming “a major strategic challenge” for countries worldwide and particularly for Japan, where companies have invested heavily in China over decades and for which China is the biggest trading partner.
“Since Japan is a neighbour to China, it is a very important as well as a difficult issue what kind of distance we should maintain with it,” Kishida said.
As part of its efforts to strengthen defence, Japan is also reshaping its relationship with the UK.
The countries are in advanced discussions to jointly develop a fighter jet. The project faces a number of significant hurdles, including potentially very high costs. But it enjoys strong support in both countries and if it proceeds, it would be the first time Tokyo has chosen a non-US partner for a major military programme.
Kishida said he wanted to move forward with talks on the fighter “in parallel” with enhancing the deterrence capability of the Japan-US alliance.
The UK is also hoping to conclude talks on joining the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — the regional trade bloc created after the US pulled out of an earlier version and of which Japan has been a consistent supporter.
Kishida said Japan’s support for the UK’s membership was unaffected by the political and financial market turmoil that has accompanied the early weeks of the premiership of Liz Truss.
“I believe the UK is a reliable and very important partner for us,” Kishida said. “We should advance our bilateral relationship with the UK in co-operation with Prime Minister Truss.”