Nato cements ties with South Korea, Japan as security challenges mount
- Nato chief’s visits to Seoul and Tokyo next week reflect the greater emphasis the transatlantic partnership is putting on East Asia, an analyst said
- China, North Korea and the war in Ukraine will be high on Jens Stoltenberg’s agenda as he aims to drum up support for the war-torn European country
And while Japan is presently constrained by self-imposed rules that mean it cannot send offensive weapons to a country involved in a conflict, analysts point out that there is growing support – both politically and among the public – for the rule to be lifted in the future.
“Nato has in recent months been placing greater emphasis on deepening and broadening cooperation with nations in East Asia, but particularly Japan and South Korea,” said an analyst with the National Institute of Defence Studies in Tokyo.
“The clear intention is to forge closer ties with like-minded countries, although this will fall short of full membership of Nato because for Japan, that is a hurdle that is just too high at this point,” said the analyst, who declined to be named as he did not have clearance to speak to the media.
And although Ukraine would undoubtedly welcome lethal weaponry from Tokyo, Stoltenberg “will be aware that is not possible in current circumstances in Japan”, the defence analyst said, and was therefore unlikely to directly ask for heavy equipment. “I think it would be difficult for the Japanese people to accept that at the moment,” he added.
Polls carried out since Russia’s invasion indicate that the vast majority of Japanese – more than 80 per cent in some studies – now support government plans to increase defence spending as the challenges to regional peace worsen.
“For Nato and Stoltenberg, the idea is to highlight that the Ukraine crisis is not a European crisis but a global crisis and a challenge to the rules-based order,” Brown said. “And that is why they are keen for other countries, particularly Japan, to get involved and offer support.”
In addition to non-lethal equipment for the Ukrainian military, Japan has been a strong supporter of international sanctions imposed on Russia and as of mid-December had provided around US$500 million in humanitarian aid.
Brown said he believed the shift in attitudes to more forceful support for a nation under attack was growing.
“It may not happen in the immediate future, but I would suggest that at some point Japan will change its own rules on the provision of military equipment,” he said. Similarly, any remaining public opposition will “erode” to the point that exports will be broadly acceptable.
There are other issues connected to Japan delivering domestically developed weapons systems to another country, not least the logistics involved in shipping tanks and artillery to Ukraine as well as compatibility issues with equipment that has already been deployed, the training of local troops and the question of spare parts.
South Korea, however, is showing that these challenges are not insurmountable with its delivery of heavy equipment to Poland.
Brown pointed out that if Japan wanted to take a bolder step and provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, a loophole created by Moscow – ironically – meant that it could do so.
While Tokyo is unable to provide heavy equipment to a nation that is at war, there are no such limitations when a country is fending off a “special military operation”, as Moscow has repeatedly insisted to the United Nations is the case in Ukraine.