Japan’s NATO love leaves China fuming over Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific strategy

Till a few years ago, Japan keenly watched and protested China-led military activities in the East and South China Seas, but now Tokyo is giving sleepless nights to Beijing over its strengthening relations with US and South Korea, significant hike in defence budget and increasing military drills with Quad members.

Add to all this, Japan is now considering opening a NATO’s liaison office in Tokyo. It has rattled China, given that it may prove to be a stepping stone for NATO’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region, where Beijing’s militaristic activities have triggered worldwide concern. “NATO claims to be a regional organization and should not extend its geopolitical reach. The Asia-Pacific does not welcome bloc confrontation or military blocs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said during a press briefing on May 24.

Days before the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, in an exclusive interview with CNN on May 10 said, “We are already in discussions (with NATO), but no details (have been) finalized yet.” Information on NATO’s planned opening of a liaison office in Tokyo, first of its kind in Asia, was broken by Nikkei Asia on May 3.

The Tokyo-based world’s largest financial newspaper, citing unnamed sources from Japan and NATO, said the liaison office will allow 31 countries’ military alliance to conduct periodic consultations with Japan and key partners like South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand as “China emerges as a new challenge, alongside its traditional focus on Russia.”

Nikkei Asia also disclosed that Japan and NATO will sign an Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP) before the NATO summit in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania on July 11-12. Remember in 2021, Lithuania, a Baltic country of around 2.7 million population, rubbed salt into China’s wound when it allowed Taiwan to establish

its Representative Office, a de facto embassy of the self-ruling island.

Terming it as a violation of the One China policy, Beijing downgraded diplomatic ties

and blocked trade with the Baltic country. As such, NATO’s decision to hold its annual meeting in Vilnius is seen as the military bloc’s move to give a firm message to China and Russia that the Baltic country is not a weak-point within the North Atlantic Alliance.

Always suspecting NATO as a spoiler of its long-held ambition to become a global superpower, China has tried to hit the 31-country military alliance as hard as possible. Recently, it said “high vigilance” was needed in the face of NATO’s “eastward expansion.”

But Japan’s planned hosting of NATO’s liaison office has come as a bolt from the blue to Beijing. “Given Japan’s history of aggression, it needs to be prudent on military and security issues and make sure its actions are conducive to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said.

China is concerned about Japan’s military build-up in the Pacific region. It is worried about Japan’s ability to target and destroy enemy assets by coordinating weaponry, including aerial satellites, submarines, glide bombs, hypersonic cruise missiles and fighter jets. Latest defence spending package for Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, approved in December last year, has sent chills down Chinese authorities’ spine.

“This is a very dangerous development, and has led to serious doubts among Japan’s Asian neighbours and the wider international community over whether Japan is genuinely committed to an exclusively defence-oriented policy and a path of peaceful development,” Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said.

In December 2022, Japan’s Cabinet approved a totalled 6.8 trillion-yen ($52 billion) for the Japanese Self Defence Force’s 2023 budget. It was a 26% increase over the country’s previous budget for the military. The Japan defence budget hike was the first under the country’s National Security Strategy, which was launched in December along with a new National Defence Strategy (NSS).

The NSS stresses on enhancing spending on defence and other outlays up to 2% of GDP by 2027—a dramatic shift in Japan’s military strategy. Of this all, the most deterring aspect is Japan’s decision to acquire counter-strike capabilities. Since it means the country will acquire long range capabilities to strike enemy bases in the event of an attack, China feels Japan will hugely damage its defence capabilities if any conflict breaks out.

More than this, what alarms China is Japan’s gradual push towards becoming a major military power. “Once Japan has the ability to conduct long-range strikes, the nation is expected to change from a ‘shield’ to a ‘sword’…push for a complete list of the ban on the development of its military power, and eventually achieve the country’s goal of becoming a major military power,” ModernShips, China’s defence journal said in its April edition.

Among experts, there are opinions that Japan will support US forces if they choose to

defend Taiwan in the wake of China’s attack on the self-ruling island.

For Japan, Taiwan is strategically an important neighbour, which is just 110 km away from the East Asian nation’s Okinawa prefecture’s Yonaguni area. If China invades Taiwan, there is a fear that the PLA may also attack US military bases in Okinawa, thereby automatically dragging Japan into a war with China.

On March 18, authorities in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture carried out its first simulated exercise, evacuating around 100,000 residents from Yonaguni and other islands close to Taiwan. According to DW, Germany’s public broadcaster, the evacuation drill was carried out by Japanese authorities in several cities including those falling in the Sakishima islands, lying 360km away from Taiwan. Japanese media outlets reported that residents on smaller islands in the Okinawa prefecture were first taken to bigger islands like Ishigaki and Miyako and then transferred to Okinawa’s main island Kyushu. People on this island were also reportedly asked by authorities to hide indoors.

Along with such precautionary civilian exercises, Japan is strengthening defence

capabilities and deepening cooperation with the US, South Korea and the Philippines. Relations between Japan and South Korea have improved significantly since March this year as Seoul announced plans to use South Korean funds to compensate forced labourers without requiring contributions from Japan. A formal summit was held between the two countries for the first time in 12 years. In April, senior officials of the two countries held

a security dialogue for the first time in five years and recently, the two sides have made moves to mend ties on the trade front.

The US has stepped up cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was recently in Washington DC and “won stronger US commitment on extended nuclear deterrence, including improved information sharing and nuclear submarine visits to South Korea,” NPR said. All this while Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was last week at the White House where President Joe Biden assured President Marcos Jr of all help in strengthening the Philippines’ security and deepening friendship between the two countries.

China is considered as a key factor behind Japan and South Korea, estranged neighbours for decades, coming together to establish a new partnership. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are speaking clearly about rising danger in the Indo-Pacific region. Supported by the US, these Asian countries are beefing up security infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region. Onto this, NATO’s planned push towards eastward seems to have caught China, especially its militaristic design in the Indo-Pacific region, in a cleft stick.