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From the Atlantic to the Pacific: Japan and integrated deterrence

In January 2023, Kishida Fumio, the Japanese Prime Minister, stated that ‘the international community is at a historic turning point’ and that ‘the free, open, and stable international order that we have dedicated ourselves to upholding is now in grave danger.’ What cause triggered this historic turning point? Kishida stated that it was Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and even dared to declare that it ‘marked the complete end of the post-Cold War world.’ In other words, given the unprovoked nature of Russia’s aggression, Japan is now resolute in that it will not tolerate any attempts to change the status quo by the use of force worldwide, whether it is in the Euro-Atlantic or the Indo-Pacific. 

Over the past two years, the escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian War has transformed the strategic posture of Japan. Indeed, this shift in policy, particularly towards Russia, is due to a strong concern that the international order prevailing currently, which is the foundation of the peace and prosperity Japan enjoys, is being seriously challenged by revisionist powers. 

Japan has advocated strongly for an immediate termination of Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied Ukrainian territory. Japan has also worked closely with the G7 and the rest of the international community on implementing tough, targeted sanctions against Russia, including unprecedented measures such as the revocation of its most favoured nation status and restrictions on transactions with Russia’s central bank. This is a significant policy shift considering Japan’s long-standing desire to solve issues related to the Northern Territories occupied by Russia. In fact, even after Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014, Japan offered economic aid in a hope to accelerate the negotiations on the Northern Territories. Taking a firm stance against Russian aggression against Ukraine means Japan will likely have to give up these negotiations for the foreseeable future. Still, the Kishida administration chose to stand with Ukraine, a commitment reflected by Kishida’s surprise visit to Kyiv in March 2023 and the invitation of President Zelenskyy to the G7 Hiroshima Summit.

The failure of deterrence in Ukraine and Ukraine’s valiant defence which surely exceeded Russian expectations were not the only reasons for Japan’s shifting security policy, but certainly acted as decisive contributing factors. Indeed, given the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific, Japan has now realised that it needs to reinforce its defence capabilities and defence industrial base fundamentally. 

The government’s decision to double the defence budget to reach 2% of current gross domestic product and to acquire counterstrike capabilities are the more noticeable transformations of Japan’s security policy. But there have also been other major changes regarding policies related to defence equipment production and transfers. Japan has long insisted on self-imposed restrictions on arms exports and avoided arms transfers to parties involved in armed conflict. However, based on requests by the Ukrainian government, Japan provided non-lethal supplies within the scope of the ‘Three Principles on Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology’ (the Three Principles). Furthermore, in March 2022, the National Security Council (NSC) partially revised the operational guidelines for the Three Principles, and the government has since transported and provided bulletproof vests, steel helmets, winter clothing, sanitary materials, protective masks and protective clothing for chemical weapons, small drones, and civilian vehicles to Ukraine. 

At the end of 2023, the Japanese government further revised the Three Principles. The main pillar of the revision was lifting the ban on the export of all ‘licensed products’, which are products manufactured by Japanese companies whilst they pay patent fees to foreign companies in the countries from which the products are licensed. For example, while the export of parts to the United States (US) had been possible in the past, the Japanese government has now made it possible to export finished products as well. Indeed, at the NSC meeting in December 2023, the Japanese government decided to export the Patriot ground-based interceptor missile to the US. Japan’s complementing of American supply capacity indirectly enables the US to export more lethal equipment to Ukraine. It must be remembered that exported licensed products cannot be sent to a third-party country where active combat is taking place according to the new Japanese guidelines. But this indirect avenue for supporting Ukraine shows how Russian aggression has transformed Japan’s arms export policy.

However, there are still some outstanding issues regarding the reform of Japan’s arms export policy. The Japanese government has not yet reached a conclusion on the export of jointly developed defence equipment to a third party country and the export of non-lethal weapons beyond five existing permissive categories (rescue, transport, warning, surveillance, and minesweeping) to countries with which Japan has cooperative security relations. These considerations on international joint development are particularly relevant to the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) for next-generation fighter aircraft which Japan is a part of with the United Kingdom (UK) and Italy. Since the fighter aircraft being developed through GCAP currently are targeted for deployment in 2035, it is not practical to export aircraft from this programme due to constraints around time and the fact it is jointly developed. Japanese policymakers must bear in mind that without export-readiness, the strategic and commercial value of jointly developed defence equipment diminishes significantly.

Another lesson Japan has learned from the ongoing war against Ukraine is that while the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are different geographical theatres, US allies in Asia and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation members face an ‘integrated threat’ emanating from Russia (in the Euro-Atlantic) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (in the Indo-Pacific). Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has revealed the PRC’s support for Russia’s war machine, particularly through the rapid increase of crude oil imports from Russia, and the exporting of Chinese dual-use technology products such as microchips, drones, trucks, and ball bearings. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) has also provided short-range ballistic missiles to Russia, something which not only prolongs the war but also gives North Korea the indirect ability to test these missiles in a live war. 

Closer ties between these three countries not only poses security threats to Ukraine and Europe, but also to Japan and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as the US and Australia. Indeed, Chinese and Russian naval fleets have made a series of recent movements circling the Japanese archipelago, and Russia and North Korea are upgrading their military cooperation. A growing Russia-PRC-DPRK relationship, and increasing provision of material and political support for one another’s disruptive behaviours, does not only mean enhanced global instability; if left unchecked, such behaviour may convince others wrongfully that one can challenge the status quo unilaterally by the use of force and military coercion.

To address this deteriorating security environment, Japan needs to strengthen its relationship with likeminded countries and increase military interoperability where possible through existing arrangements such as the US-South Korea-Japan Trilateral and the Quad. In this sense, enhanced security cooperation between the UK and Japan is much needed to bolster deterrence against revisionist powers. Currently, the UK has two off-shore patrol vessels deployed in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, a British carrier strike group plans to navigate the Indo-Pacific in 2025. 

To be sure, the conclusion of the Reciprocal Access Agreement between Japan and the UK, which was the second of its kind after the agreement with Australia, better enables the two countries to jointly conduct tactical and operational training in and around Japan. However, to ensure combat readiness, Japan needs to be able to provide repair and other services to countries such as the UK and Australia. Unfortunately, under current operational guidelines, the provision of repair and other services by private operators is limited to the US military. This constraint must be fast resolved.

Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine and subsequent developments acted as a wake-up call for Japan as it exposed Tokyo to the fact that the existing international order now faces an integrated threat posed by revisionist powers. For this reason, Japanese policymakers now also see Euro-Atlantic security and Indo-Pacific security as interconnected. Indeed, Japan today strives to bolster integrated deterrence by increasing interoperability, providing necessary services and developing and transferring defence equipment in collaboration with like-minded partners both in Asia and Europe.

Rena Sasaki is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins SAIS and a fellow of the Pacific Forum’s Next Generation Young Leaders Programme.

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