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Japan must confront reality of military threats

May 8


The United States and Japan have been friendly since the aftermath of World War II, after which the U.S. committed around $38 billion (in 2024 dollars) to help rebuild its former enemy. Today, especially in light of the growing military threat from neighboring China, Japan is increasingly aligned with Western security alliances like AUKUS and NATO.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan critiques Japanese attitudes toward the military and argues that these attitudes must evolve in order for the Japanese to play a meaningful role in Western alliances. Zeihan maintains that the U.S. and Japan will remain allies regardless, but asserts that the Japanese must grow beyond their culture of post-war pacifism to prepare for today’s resurgent military threats.

Below is an excerpt from Peter’s May 8 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

The Japanese have looked into their crystal ball and figured out that a close relationship with the Americans is the only way forward. Before Japan is welcomed in with open arms, they’ll have to prove their worth…

Between trade issues, economic challenges, and demographic crisis, it makes sense that Japan wants to join the AUKUS group (a defense focused coalition made up of the U.S., the U.K., and Australia).

Japan has some big changes to make. While their naval capabilities are solid, they have to make the cultural and political shift toward taking a more active role for themselves and their region. They also lack real world combat experience and have plenty of cybersecurity concerns to overcome. I wouldn’t expect to see the green light anytime soon, but eventual collaboration looks to be in the cards.

Hey, everybody, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado. Today we’re going to talk about the recent batch of uppity up meetings between the Japanese and the Americans. In mid April, we had a very large number of concepts up to it, including Japanese Prime Minister of Canada, as well as US President Biden.


At issue is the Japanese are angling for a much closer relationship. So the backstory.


Japan in the 80s, up until the 80s, was a huge trade country. But then they had a demographic bomb and a debt crisis at the same time, and over the next 30 years, their competitiveness, basically tanked. And so they spent the next 30 years how want to say gutting but changing the way their industrial processes worked with as much of the manufacturing as possible, closer to the end consumers in countries that didn’t face a demographic bomb. And in doing so, they went from one of the most trade weighted heavy countries in the world to one of the least involved with today, only about 10 to 15% of GDP based on where you’re drawing the line comes from international trade in any meaningful way.


Toyota says, you know, we build where we sell, and that has basically become the national motto. Now, that requires a degree of openness in the country that you’re trying to sell in. And so when the Japanese over the last 20 years, saw the United States becoming more and more isolationist, when it came to its economic issues, they’re like, Wow, we need to we need to get ahead of this. So they reached out to none other than Donald Trump, and cut a trade deal that, from the Japanese point of view was borderline humiliating. But they knew that that was the price to pay for a long term strategic and economic relationship. And in the aftermath of Trump’s fall, the leadership of Japan has been to the United States to make it clear to Joe Biden, that unlike a lot of the other countries that sign trade deals with the Trump administration, Japan wasn’t looking for any changes, something that the Biden ministration greatly appreciated. Anyway, so with that in your back pocket, we can now talk about the relationship moving forward. Specifically, the Japanese are angling for membership in a group called actus, which is Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, countries that are now pooling parts of the defense budget in a lot of their defense technology to build a new generation of weapons. With the Australian specifically will get out of this nuclear attack subs and medium range air launch cruise missiles, which are, you know, very Blimey, and it will tighten what is basically already one of the tightest security relationships among any three countries in the world.


The Japanese would like to get into that. And if you look at what the primary concerns of the ACA steel is, China, you can see how that would be a really, really nice fit. But it’s not going to happen in the near term, three problems. Number one culture after World War Two, when the Japanese were recovering from those twin atomic blasts, the Japanese made the very serious and probably very quick decision that we never want to be at a position again, where we might even theoretically be on the wrong side of the United States. So we have to have a navy, we’re an island country, we don’t have a good land that worked. Because it’s so mountainous, we have to have a navy just for normal commerce, maritime tours anyway. And so we’re going to have a naval force. And even today, the Japanese are the second most powerful navy in the world. But we have to make sure that that’s cast in a way that will never make the Americans ever blink that we might be anything other than an ally. That does as its told.


That worked during the Cold War that worked in the post cold war era, but it’s not going to work now. Because if the Japanese are going to be part of an alliance with the Australians, the Brits and the Americans, then they need to take some initiative on their selves, they need to patrol their own zones, they need to contribute to the greater whole. And that requires a lot more aggressiveness and especially a culture of having a military that is not looked down on basically in Japan until recently if you went into the military because people thought that you couldn’t do anything else that needs to change because the Japanese do have one of the most technologically advanced systems in the world.


So number one, culture cringe. Number two, experience part of being a pacifist, no matter what your equipment looks, load looks like, means that you don’t shoot. And so since 1945, the Japanese functionally have had no combat experience. And this is gonna sound really weird. The War on Terror for a lot of countries was an opportunity to get experience interfacing with the United States and get limited combat experience on an issue that for them was not really top tier. So you know, if something went disastrously wrong, there might be some political


Fallout, especially with the Americans. But it’s not like Japan would face a threat to the home islands from al Qaeda. Well, now that the Americans have wrapped up the war on terror, that opportunity, if that’s the right word is gone. And the Japanese, if they want to look around and get some practice, you know, you got the Russians and the Chinese, but if there’s a fight with them, that is not small scale that does not have low risk. So it’s not clear how, aside from drilling, drilling, drilling, drilling, with your own forces, with the Americans, with the Australians, it’s not clear how they can get that experience before they get to a real fight. The third problem, luckily, is something that is a little bit more short term and a little easier to fix that cybersecurity, if you are a pacifist, and if you believe that military activity is passe, well, you don’t really worry about your information control. And I would argue that aside from the Chinese, were a lot of cryptography is functionally illegal. So the government can hack its own population. The Japanese people are probably the most hacked people on the planet.


That’s got to change if they’re going to be part of any sort of deep information and technical sharing, because nobody wants to develop a new nuclear submarine.


Share the plans with the Japanese, and he see it on tick tock the next day. Luckily, there’s plenty of ways to get experienced combating that. And I have no doubt that the Japanese are already working on multiple cylinders in order to get that experience built up. But still, that’s not something you do in three months or six months or nine months or 12 months. It’s multi year process. So will this happen?


In some version, I think almost guaranteed. But the question is how fast can the Japanese make the changes are going to be necessary so that the rest of their would be allies are willing to trust them? That’s not next year.

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