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Tokyo needs to brace itself for return of a new cold war

Seven years ago on April 27, 2015, Japan and the United States unveiled the third revision of their Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation.


This document had personal significance for me because I was the task leader at the Institute for Defense Analyses to provide a discussion forum on the guidelines for delegations from Japan and the United States.


The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, first signed in 1951 and then revised in 1960, serves as the foundation for this important alliance, whereas the periodically updated guidelines provide focus and goals for important aspects of cooperation between the two allies.


The first guidelines, announced in 1978, were formulated during the Cold War era. They specified the responsibilities for the Self Defense Forces and U.S. forces in the event of Soviet aggression toward Japan.


Neither China nor North Korea was considered to pose an imminent threat in those days.


In 1997, the guidelines were revised to prepare for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of Pyongyang’s relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Then in 2015, the guidelines were expanded to address a variety of new security challenges, including cybersecurity, the militarization of space and China’s regional assertiveness in the East Sea.


At the time, a regional Russian threat was not considered to be serious in the minds of many Japanese — even though Moscow had forcibly annexed Crimea the previous year.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned back the clock.


Although the two countries don’t share a border, a long-running dispute involves ownership of the four southernmost of the Kuril Islands, which stretch between Japan and Russia. Moscow calls them the Southern Kurils and Tokyo calls them the Northern Territories, and in fact the island dispute has prevented the two nations from signing a postwar peace treaty. The islands were captured by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War, and since then, every Japanese prime minister has tried to get them back.


During his second term as prime minister, from 2012 to 2020, Shinzo Abe met Russian leader Vladimir Putin formally and informally about two dozen times. Abe doggedly proposed dialogue to address the issue of the territories, and in 2018, Putin hinted that Russia might consider returning at least two islands to Japan — if Tokyo recognized Moscow’s sovereignty over all the islands.


On March 25, a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Japanese government announced that it would spend ¥1.05 trillion ($8.2 billion) to support American forces in Japan over the next five years, an 11% increase over the previous allocation.


The budget covers the maintenance of facilities used by the 55,000 U.S. troops based in Japan and the cost for Japanese forces to participate in joint military exercises. The increase in Japan’s host nation support budget was officially attributed to threats from North Korea and China, but not from Russia.


Japan has traditionally kept its overall defense budgets low, ranking ninth among the world’s 10 biggest spenders. At $49 billion, just under 1% of GDP, the annual budget is dwarfed by the U.S. budget of $7.8 billion (just over 3% of GDP). However, it now appears that future budgets will finally crack the “sacred” 1% ceiling.


Putin’s invasion of Ukraine does not translate into a direct threat to Japan. Japan joined other Western countries in invoking economic sanctions on Russia and extending economic aid to Ukraine, angering Moscow.


True, all hope of resuming dialogue over the Northern Territories in the foreseeable future seems dead. But for Japan, this territorial issue is markedly different from Ukraine’s territorial concern because Japan lost control of the islands over 75 years ago.


The more likely threat posed by Russia’s invasion of a neighboring country is that it might solidify and embolden a renewed cold war bloc that includes China and North Korea, two states that do pose a threat to Japan.


Far to the south of Japan’s main islands, the Japanese government controls several uninhabited islands (which it calls the Senkakus) that are also claimed by Taiwan and China. The Chinese regularly send military aircraft and ships toward the islands, far more aircraft than Russia sends to probe the air defenses of Japan. North Korea, which harbors considerable animosity toward Japan, has frequently launched missiles in the direction of and occasionally over Japan.


As the only country that has ever experienced a nuclear attack, Japan’s deep-seated pacifism and strong opposition to military conflict have long shaped its foreign policy.


When China needed economic aid and official development assistance from Japan, Tokyo willingly helped Beijing to promote a market economy. In talks with Russia, Japan has promised economic and trade cooperation. In the 1990s, Japan helped finance the (doomed) project to supply North Korea with “peaceful” atomic reactors.


Now, however, Japan is awakening from its long dream of peace and tranquility.


While the specific threat to the Japanese islands may not have changed, the emerging belligerent character of Russia may portend a return to the dangerous years of the Cold War, inclining Japan and the United States to cooperate more closely on security affairs.


When Tokyo and Washington revise the guidelines in the future, they may indeed provide the basis for including South Korea and other Asian countries in security cooperation as well, just as European nations are now committing themselves more fully to NATO.


Kongdan Oh is an independent scholar. She was formerly a Senior Asia Specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

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