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INTERVIEW | Kishida’s Vision: Shift in Defense Policy is ‘Real’ Says Japan-UK Security Expert

Japan’s defense upgrades “will be pushed in the service of regional interests” explains Dr. Philip Shetler-Jones of the London-based Council on Geostrategy.

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“We will not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end.” 

These were among the strong statements uttered by China’s Defense Minister General Wei Genghe with regards to Taiwan. The general was addressing an audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security summit held in Singapore on June 12 hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). 

Taking place in person for the first time since 2019, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become a reference point for international defense negotiations. This year, with 597 delegates from 39 countries and 32 ministers, the summit celebrated its 20th edition.

Among notable mentions from the event, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivered the keynote speech to the conference on June 10. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also participated via an online address. 

JAPAN Forward sat down with Dr. Philip Shetler-Jones, associate fellow at the Council on Geostrategy in London, to discuss the implications of the Shangri-La Dialogue for the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Kishida responds to questions after his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 10.

Japan’s ‘Real Shift’ in Defense Policy

Fumio Kishida in his keynote speech on June 10 mapped out the “Kishida Vision for Peace,” highlighting five pillars of policy going forward. 

The underlying theme in Kishida’s address was “maintaining and strengthening the rules-based free and open international order.”  

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To achieve this, he pledged to increase Japan’s defense capabilities, invest in economic security, and seek to achieve reform at the UN Security Council reform. Included in this is his “realistic” vision of a world without nuclear weapons. 

The vision “was a way of reconciling different points of view among Japanese security thinkers: more realism, or more Japan as a peace loving nation,” weighed in Dr. Shetler-Jones, a specialist in Indo-Pacific geopolitics with a focus on Japan. 

Japan is a strongly peace-oriented country without an army, but it has Self-Defense Forces. 

“It is a big shift,” reflected Dr. Shetler-Jones, honing in on the defense policy change in Japan. “It's a shift from that principle [that defense] should not go too much beyond 1% of Gross Domestic Product.” 

Yet, he also stressed the greater picture, as Kishida explained to Japan’s neighbors that higher defense spending should be reassuring. 

From the perspective of Japan, “defense will be pushed in the service of regional interests,” explained Dr. Shetler-Jones. 

China’s Defense Minister General Wei Genghe on June 12 in Singapore.

US-China Drift: More of the Same? 

The weekend in Singapore was marked with strong comments from defense leaders of the United States and China. 

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in his remarks at the summit warned against China’s “coercive and aggressive” behavior. 

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On the other hand, China’s Defense Minister General Wei Genghe accused the US of “hijacking” countries in the Indo-Pacific in an attempt to increase influence in the region. 

The Council on Geostrategy fellow observed that both countries' rhetoric was “familiar material.” If anything, “there was good news,” said Dr. Shetler-Jones, as there was somewhat of “an opening to diplomacy being restored.” 

At the same time, he highlighted the new perceived sense of urgency on the part Western countries regarding the status of Taiwan in the shadow of the war in Ukraine.

“Everyone is now focused on [Taiwan], in a new light,” said Dr. Shetler-Jones. “It slightly raised the credibility of the idea that, if you're going to support a victim of aggression, you need to do it before the war starts,” he added. “You don't want to be waiting until after it's too late.” 

Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by the IISS.

Investing in an 'International Rules Based Order'

With participants from 39 countries, Shangri-La was an opportunity for many countries to raise awareness of their own security concerns on the world stage. 

Among them, Fiji’s defense minister's speech, and the announcement of a Japan-Singapore defense industry agreement, stood out. 

“The overall trend is one of countries increasingly coming together around this idea that the foundations of the international rules based order need more investment,” summarized Dr. Shetler-Jones. 

Dr. Philip Shetler-Jones on June 12, Tokyo.

Pointing towards the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) trilateral technology agreement, Dr. Shetler-Jones reflected:

“We are used to hearing a lot about AUKUS, [...] people see that as a somewhat exceptional arrangement. But I think in time that may begin to look like the beginning of a trend.” 

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With vast experience in covering security-related events, Dr. Shetler-Jones also shared insights into how the Shangri-La Dialogue differs from other summits, steps going forward, and what to look for in the future. 

For the full conversation, watch the embedded video, or visit the JAPAN Forward YouTube channel.

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