Geopolitics Strategic Thinking

Japan Deepens Its Cooperation with NATO And Strengthens Its Military Capabilities. Could Tokyo Become Another Member of The Alliance in The Future?

Katarína Ďurďovičová

NATO is in negotiations with Japan to open a liaison office no later than 2024 in Tokyo. At the same time, the so-called Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP) is expected to be signed with Japan by the NATO-Japan summit in July. The single-agency liaison office, together with the ITTP, will enable the Alliance to more effectively hold regular discussions on geopolitical challenges, new technologies and cyber threats not only with the Land of the Rising Sun but also with other NATO security partners in the region, such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, Japan has declared its intention to establish an independent mission to NATO, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida is considering attending the NATO summit in Lithuania in July. The reason for the deepening of relations between Tokyo and the North Atlantic Alliance is mainly due to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has said that the world has become less stable as a result of the invasion and events in Eastern Europe are directly affecting other regions. Japan is thus currently reassessing the regional security situation with regard to its neighbours such as Russia, North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.

Japan’s alignment with NATO strengthens stability and allows for more efficient control over the ambitions of the mentioned three countries in the region. The mere idea of creating a NATO liaison office in Tokyo is thus not attractive to any of them. “NATO’s eastward expansion in the Asia-Pacific region is causing interference in regional affairs that threatens to destroy regional peace and stability, and the pressure for bloc confrontation requires high vigilance by countries in the region,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning. In Beijing’s case, the risk posed from Japan’s perspective is mainly China’s expansion of naval and air capabilities near Japan. Besides, China claims sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are part of a series of islands under Japanese control in the East China Sea. The tension between Japan and Russia has also increased in recent months. Tokyo has been particularly unnerved by Russian military exercises in waters between the two countries and joint Sino-Russian naval patrols in the Western Pacific, close to Japan. In the case of North Korea, Japan’s long-standing concern is mainly the nuclear arsenal in the hands of Pyongyang.

Given the current regional tensions and the ongoing fighting in Ukraine, Japan has, therefore, recently committed itself to a massive increase in military spending and to building up the most massive military capabilities since the end of WWII. This massive five-year plan, worth USD 320 billion, once unimaginable in pacifist Japan, will make the country the third largest defence budget in the world, after the US and China. Japan plans to invest in interceptor missiles to defend against ballistic missiles, attack and reconnaissance drones, satellite communications equipment, F-35 stealth fighters, helicopters, submarines, warships and heavy transport aircraft. The aim of this massive budget plan is to ensure that Japan has the military capabilities to strike back in a potential conflict. In particular, the Japanese Government is concerned that Russia might indirectly encourage China to recapture Taiwan, thereby directly threatening the security of the Japanese islands.

Despite the clear benefits and interest of both Japan and NATO in deepening their cooperation to better counter common threats, it is unlikely that Japan will become a full member of the North Atlantic Alliance in the near future. This was confirmed by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida, who said in May that Japan had no plans to join NATO. In addition, Japan’s geographical location, or the geographical demarcation of NATO in the North Atlantic region, is also a major obstacle to entry. Moreover, the Alliance’s expansion into East Asia would very likely lead to a further escalation of tensions in the region in a situation where NATO is forced to concentrate its full attention on developments in Ukraine.

On the other hand, both Japan and NATO clearly see the importance of strengthening their relations and cooperation. Thus, a possible entry of Tokyo into the Alliance in the distant future cannot be ruled out, and such a move would fundamentally affect not only Japan’s foreign policy to date but also the internal dynamics within the Alliance and the situation in the region. Since Article 5 serves as an insurance policy against future enemies, Japan would gain access to a network of mutual defence treaties if it joined NATO. This security guarantee as a deterrent and a symbol of the Alliance’s support for Japan’s territorial integrity and national security would strengthen the country’s defence. If Japan were to become a member of the Alliance, NATO could expand its influence and global security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region. By facilitating the exchange of information, strengthening relations between NATO and other regional security organizations, and promoting a more robust strategy to address common global challenges, these developments could strengthen ties between NATO and other regional security organizations.

Photo credit: NATO North Atlantic Treaty

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