Briefing: The US and NATO Militarise Northeast Asia

The New Cold War is rapidly heating up, with severe consequences for people around the world. Our series, Briefings, provides the key facts on these matters of global concern.

On 22 October, the United States, Japan, and South Korea held their first-ever joint aerial drill. The military exercise took place after US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol gathered at Camp David in August ‘to inaugurate a new era of trilateral partnership’. Although North Korea has frequently been invoked as a regional bogeyman to justify militarisation, the formation of a trilateral alliance between the US, Japan, and South Korea is a key element of Washington’s efforts to contain China. The militarisation of Northeast Asia threatens to divide the region into antagonistic blocs, undermining decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation, and raises the likelihood of a conflict breaking out, in particular over Taiwan, entangling neighbouring countries through a web of alliances.

The Remilitarisation of Japan

In recent years, encouraged by the United States, Japan has undergone its most extensive militarisation since the end of the Second World War. After Japan’s defeat, a new postwar constitution was drafted by US occupation officials and came into effect in 1947. Under this ‘peace constitution’, Japan pledged to ‘forever renounce war […] and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’. However, with the Chinese Revolution in 1949 and the breakout of the Korean War in 1950, the US quickly reversed its course in Japan. According to US State Department historians, ‘the idea of a re-armed and militant Japan no longer alarmed US officials; instead, the real threat appeared to be the creep of communism, particularly in Asia’. The cause of amending and circumventing Japan’s ‘peace constitution’ was taken up by the right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which received millions of dollars in support from the US Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War and has ruled the country almost without interruption (except for 1993–1994 and 2009–2012) since 1955.

Over the past decade, the LDP has transformed Japan’s defence policy. In 2014, unable to amend the constitution, the LDP government led by Shinzo Abe ‘re-interpreted’ it to allow for ‘proactive pacifism’ and lifted a ban on Japanese troops engaging in combat overseas, enabling the country to participate in military interventions to aid allies such as the US. In 2022, the Kishida administration labeled China ‘the greatest strategic challenge ever to securing the peace and stability of Japan’ and announced plans to double military spending to 2% of gross domestic product (on par with NATO countries) by 2027, overturning Japan’s postwar cap that limited military spending to 1% of GDP. The administration also ended a policy dating back to 1956 that limited Japan’s missile capability to defend against incoming missiles and adopted a policy that allows for counter-strike abilities. This move has paved the way for Japan to purchase 400 US Tomahawk missiles beginning in 2025, with the ability to strike Chinese and Russian naval bases located on the countries’ eastern coasts.

Absolving Japanese Colonialism

Historically, Washington’s efforts to create multilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific have failed due to the legacy of Japanese colonialism. During the Cold War, the US resorted to a network of bilateral alliances with countries in the region known as the San Francisco System. The initial step in creating this system was the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), which established peaceful relations between the Allied Powers and Japan. To expedite the integration of Japan as an ally, the US excluded the victims of Japanese colonialism (including China, the Kuomintang-led administration in Taiwan, and both Koreas) from the San Francisco peace conference and excused Tokyo from taking responsibility for its colonial and war crimes (including massacres, sexual slavery, human experimentation, and forced labour).

The new trilateral alliance between the US, Japan, and South Korea has been able to overcome previous impediments because South Korea’s Yoon administration has waived away Japan’s responsibility for the crimes committed during its colonial rule over Korea (1910–1945). More specifically, the Yoon administration abandoned a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling holding Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi responsible for the forced labour of Koreans. Rather than finally being held accountable, Japan has once again been let off the hook.

Towards an Asian NATO?

In 2022, NATO named China a security challenge for the first time. That year’s summit was also the first attended by leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand (these four countries participated again in 2023). Meanwhile, in May, it was reported that NATO was planning to open a ‘liaison office’ in Japan, though the proposal appears to have been shelved – for now.

The US-Japan-South Korea trilateral alliance is a major step towards achieving NATO-level capabilities in Asia, namely interoperability with respect to armed forces, infrastructure, and information. The agreement reached at the Camp David meeting in August commits each country to annual meetings and military exercises. These war exercises allow the three militaries to practice sharing data and coordinating their activities in real time. In addition, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Japan and South Korea – much sought after by the US – expands military intelligence sharing between the two countries to not only be ‘limited to the DPRK’s missiles and nuclear programs but also includ[e] the threats from China and Russia’. This allows the US, Japan, and South Korea to develop a common operational picture, the foundation of interoperability in the Northeast Asian military theatre.

Waging Peace

Earlier this year, in reference to the Asia-Pacific, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns declared that his country is ‘the leader in this region’. While China has proposed a concept of ‘indivisible security’, meaning the security of one country is dependent on the security of all, the US is taking a hostile approach that seeks to form exclusive blocs. Washington’s hegemonic attitude towards Asia is stoking tensions and pushing the region towards conflict and war – particularly over Taiwan, which Beijing has called a ‘red line’ issue. Defusing the situation in Northeast Asia will require moving away from a strategy that is centred on maintaining US dominance. Those positioned to lead this movement are the people who are already struggling on the frontlines, from Gangjeong villagers who have opposed a naval base for US warships since 2007 and Okinawans fighting to no longer be the US’s unsinkable aircraft carrier to the people of Taiwan who may ultimately have the most to lose from war in the region.