Raising Tensions in Korea and the Taiwan Strait: Japan Says it Will Now Consider Preemptive Strikes as Self Defence

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi has stated that his country will in future consider deploying combat aircraft for pre-emptive strikes on foreign soil, which he argued would not violate Japan’s pacifist constitution. He elaborated during a parliamentary hearing: “it would fall within the scope of self-defence” for Japanese combat aircraft to enter enemy airspace and strike targets, highlighting that “the intent is that no option will be ruled out if it falls within the scope of the constitution and international law.” Kishi claimed that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had previously stated Japan would “consider all possible options, including enemy base strike capabilities.” Japan’s armed forces have refrained since the Second World War from investing in capabilities to attack other countries, although the country’s powerful armed forces remain among the world’s most capable and are well equipped for roles such as air defence and tackling enemy warships at sea. The United States has long placed pressure on Japan to expand its military capabilities, leading to increasingly loose interpretations of what the Japanese Self Defence Forces, the official name of the country's military, are capable of. Pre-emptive strikes represent only the latest step in this direction. 

A strong Japanese military closely aligned with Western interests plays a key role in ensuring that the balance of power in East Asia continues to favour the United States, which faces growing challenges to its longstanding dominance from China and to a lesser extent from North Korea. Allowing for pre-emptive strikes could pave the way towards new acquisitions by Japan’s armed forces, including land attack cruise missiles for its submarines and destroyers and air launched cruise missiles for its fighters such as the F-2 and F-35. The Japanese Air Self Defence Force has notably already shifted from a reliance on aircraft built for air to air combat such as the F-15, and previously the F-4 and F-104, to comprise a growing portion of its fleet of F-35s built primarily for penetration of enemy airspace and strike missions. Japanese officials have indicated that the country could also intervene in the event of a resumption of open hostilities between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, which although recognised by Tokyo, the United Nations and the large majority of UN member states as part of a single country are divided in a state of technically ongoing civil war. The Western-aligned Republic of China government in Taipei, although not recognised internationally, could thus potentially gain Japanese military support. 

A Japanese preemptive strike doctrine would likely most seriously undermine the security of its neighbour North Korea, which Tokyo has drawn the hardest line against since relations between Pyongyang and Washington improved in 2018. Such a doctrine would allow Japan to fire the first shot, for example attacking a Korean missile testing facility, which would risk sparking a war that could draw in the United States and other parties such as South Korea. The U.S. previously considered the possibility of preemptive strikes against North Korean targets, and even preventative strikes to destroy targets which were not threatening the U.S. but which supported development of technologies which the U.S. wished to deny to the country. The fact that North Korean military bases and arms factories are largely underground in fortified positions, and the lack of intelligence on the country’s defence industry or missile testing, has made the possibility of such attacks difficult for the U.S. and will likely do so for Japan. 

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