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Japan shifts away from its post-war defense policies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, Japan released a plan for one of the biggest changes to its defense policy since World War II. It mandates a major increase in defense spending. It also calls for acquiring missiles capable of striking other nations. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Japan insists it won't use them unless forced to defend itself.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Japan's Cabinet approved revisions to the National security strategy and other documents, which include acquiring what it calls counterstrike capabilities. The plan calls for getting in and deploying U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting North Korea and parts of China. It'll also increase defense spending by more than 1 1/2 times to around 2% of GDP. At a press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida argued that Japan must keep pace with the advances in missile technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: He said, "a counterstrike capability which serves to deter an opponent from attacking will be indispensable in the future." The documents claim that Japan is facing the most severe security environment since World War II. It points specifically to security challenges from China, North Korea and Russia. The government pledges that it will stick to a strictly defensive military posture and launch a counterstrike only if it has no other options. But defining what is strictly defensive can be tricky.

KEIZO TAKEMI: This is absolutely, you know, the gray zone.

KUHN: Keizo Takemi is a veteran lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

TAKEMI: Defense sometimes means attack. And without the capacity to attack the cause of threat, no country can defend their own people and sovereign territories.

KUHN: Takemi says opinion polls show a majority of Japanese support having a counterstrike capability. But some observers are concerned that Japan's missiles may not be enough to deter its adversaries. Yasuo Hasebe, a legal expert at Waseda University in Tokyo, says that North Korea, for example, may have more missiles than Japan's counterstrikes could take out.

YASUO HASEBE: If Japan cannot eliminate these missile launching pads (inaudible) then these field commanders of North Korea will retaliate Japan with nuclear weapons. Then Japan would be doomed.

KUHN: Other critics argue that the new strategy may make Japan less safe. Former defense official Koji Yanagisawa argues the new strategy makes Japan look less neutral and more menacing.

KOJI YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) counterstrike capability means attacking an enemy's land. It means we have shifted to a policy which is completely different from an exclusively defensive one.

KUHN: Yanagisawa says that many Japanese look at Russia invading Ukraine and China rattling sabers at Taiwan and think they must prepare for war. Instead, he says, Japan should focus on diplomacy to avoid war.

YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) Japanese people may think war is fate or destiny, but war is not fate.

KUHN: Japan's new strategy has just been unveiled, and many issues remain to be resolved, including how Japan is going to fund the huge defense budget increases. Another issue is how Japan will coordinate with the U.S. military, as it will have to do if it ever has to resort to using its new weapons. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.