Since World War II, Tokyo has largely been happy to outsource its security needs to Washington. But this is now changing to a more equal partnership.
On January 13, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio called his country’s alliance with the United States “stronger than ever.” For his part, U.S. President Joe Biden, who was hosting Kishida at the White House, said the United States was “fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance” with Japan.
The words from Kishida and Biden might seem like the usual diplomatic niceties, but behind the smiles from the two leaders was a quantum shift in Tokyo’s foreign policy positioning. The war’s legacy and subsequent 1947 pacifist constitution help to explain why Japan has until now preferred its military to keep a low profile – a deal that has come at a bargain price.
For decades, Japan’s defense budget has hovered around 1 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), well below the levels of other G-7 nations. Japan has traditionally invested less in its military than even New Zealand – which currently spends around 1.5 per cent of its GDP on its defense force. But this won’t be the case for much longer.
Under a new security blueprint unveiled by Kishida’s government in mid-December, Tokyo is pledging to double its defense spending to at least 2 percent of GDP by 2027.
Over the past fortnight, the Japanese prime minister has embarked on something of a sales pitch for the new plans by visiting five of the other six countries in the G-7. The tour wrapped up on Friday when Kishida stopped at the White House to meet with Biden.
Tokyo’s more hawkish turn will be music to Washington’s ears. The plans see Japan buying up advanced weaponry – including long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States – and spending more on developing hypersonic and cybersecurity technology.
And one does not need to look far to find out why.
Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) openly calls out China, describing Beijing a “matter of serious concern for Japan” and the “greatest strategic challenge” to the country’s security. The NSS also alleges China is developing its “strategic ties” with Russia and is seeking to “challenge the international order.”
While similar characterizations have become commonplace in U.S. security documents, they represent a sea change for pacifist Japan.
Tokyo’s dramatic shifts are likely to have ramifications for New Zealand, which receives a special mention in the companion National Defense Strategy that was also released in December. The new security documents make clear that Japan expects its own changes will come as part of a team effort by “like-minded countries.”
New Zealand is currently undertaking a review of its own defense policy, which was launched following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and after Wellington published an unusually hawkish defense assessment at the end of 2021. That document called China’s rise the “major driver of geopolitical change” and said Beijing was “seeking to reshape the international system.”
The desire for multilateral cooperation with countries such as New Zealand emerged as a major theme in conversations with Japanese diplomats and experts when I visited Tokyo as a guest of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs just before Christmas.
One foreign ministry official told me he believed 2022 had been a “transformative” year for Japan-New Zealand relations and said New Zealand had “embraced” the concept of the “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Asked whether Japan wanted New Zealand to join its side, the diplomat said that decision was up to the New Zealand people – but he believed “like-minded countries can make the right choices.”
New Zealand’s strengths in the Pacific are an obvious attraction to Japan as part of the strategy to contain China. The official said Japan was still “shocked” by Beijing’s security deal with Solomon Islands, which was signed early in 2022, calling it a “big wake-up call” that reinforced the need for Tokyo to win “hearts and minds” in Pacific countries.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Japan last April to meet with Kishida on her first foreign trip since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After their meeting, Ardern called Japan “one of New Zealand’s closest and most important partners in the Indo-Pacific.” Both countries pledged to step up an existing Japan New Zealand Strategic Cooperative Partnership and signed an agreement to share security-related classified information.
The joint statement referred several times to the need for the Indo-Pacific to remain “free and open” – a phrase squarely aimed at Beijing that was popularized by the late Abe Shinzo, the former Japanese prime minister who was assassinated last July.
Like New Zealand, Japan is highly dependent on trade with China. Twenty-three percent of Japan’s exports go to China every year, and Japan also relies on China for a quarter of its imports. For New Zealand, the reliance on China is even greater: 32 percent of New Zealand’s exports are sent to China annually.
When asked about how the apparent trade vs. security dilemma could be untangled, Japanese observers I spoke with were generally sympathetic to New Zealand’s plight. One analyst bluntly said there was “no answer” to economic dependence on China and that Japan’s trade diversification efforts were of an “incremental” nature.
Another academic noted similarities between New Zealand’s position and many Southeast Asian countries, which are also heavily reliant on the Chinese market. Both experts saw the current geopolitical situation as being long-term in nature – akin to the Cold War – and believed the issues would not go away anytime soon.
Is there a third option for New Zealand to avoid heavily aligning itself with one side or the other in the current bout of great power competition – and instead play the role of an intermediary between the two camps?
Noting the loss of Sweden and Finland as neutral countries in 2022, the academic said there was certainly “value” in the idea of New Zealand playing the role of go-between – but it would take “strong and clever leadership” to pull it off.
And it would not necessarily be any cheaper: Neutral countries such as Finland and Switzerland still maintained sizeable defense budgets throughout the Cold War.
But the academic pointed to Ireland’s role as the architect of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed at the height of the Cold War in 1968, as an example of what could be achieved: “New Zealand could have its own moment in history.”
Despite vast differences in size, culture and history, there are similarities between Japan and New Zealand that extend well beyond rugby and earthquakes.
For different reasons, both countries have traditionally paid close attention to nuclear disarmament issues. New Zealand has maintained a nuclear-free policy since 1984. Tokyo’s decision to take a more realist approach may resonate particularly well with Wellington, which in recent decades has generally tended to tread a more dovish line than other Western countries.
Another Japanese commentator told me he believed New Zealand was a “more pacifist country than we are, than we were.”
Change has not come easily to Japan – and the new military and security strategy is not without its critics inside the country. The massive cost of the arms build-up will come at the cost of matching tax hikes.
Ultimately, Wellington will need to make its own foreign policy decisions, in its own interests. But whatever the future holds, Japan will be a country for New Zealand to watch.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand’s democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.