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Japan’s new security strategy: rising to meet the challenge

Taken together, the National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), and Defence Buildup Program published by the government of Japan on 16th December clearly identifies and links ends, ways and means to an extent unusual in such documents, and so truly merits the title of ‘Strategy’. As well as being exemplary in a technical sense, the NSS is inspiring in a visionary sense that is relevant to the ‘refresh’ of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Integrated Review currently under way. According to the NSS, Japan’s response to a darkening world security order is to increase the scope of ambition and commit to investments on a level that rises to meet the challenge, rather than shrinking into accommodation or a defeatist crouch. 

Much international commentary has seen this policy representing a break (or ‘Zeitenwende’ in one comparison) from Japan’s ‘pacifist’ tradition toward a more ‘assertive’ role in the regional order, based on its move towards strike capabilities and defence budget increases. However, these developments proportionally track dynamics in military science and the regional balance of power, and look more like a continuation of an established trajectory than a turning point. It is at the domestic level of Japan’s social attitudes and institutional forms that the more profound – and difficult – discontinuities are likely to show up in the coming years.

What has changed?

The narrative starting point for Japan’s strategy is a crossroads ‘between a world of hope and a world of adversity and distrust’, where divisions are opening open up between countries that observe universal values of ‘freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law, and international order based on international law’, and those that do not, who seek to revise the international order by means of economic coercion and unilateral force. Diplomacy is listed first among areas for which the new strategy provides strategic guidance. It is followed by defence, economic security, technology, cyber, maritime, space, intelligence, official development assistance, and energy.

Extended use of civilian ports and airfields allowing the dispersal of Japanese forces would mitigate their exposure when engaged in duties to support the defence of Taiwan.

The fact that Russia’s naked and brutal aggression against Ukraine came in the context of a friendship with Beijing ‘without limits’ amplified the strategic shock it delivered to Japan’s threat assessment. Chinese-Russian alignment amounts to a geopolitical worst case scenario that Japan under Shinzo Abe, a former Prime Minister, had been working hard against the odds to forestall. To have it combined with the threat emanating from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) complicates the situation even further. Combined Chinese and Russian naval and air patrols through Japan’s air and sea space suggest there is little hope for a strategy to separate the two Eurasian giants. Steps in the NDS to increase weapons inventories, develop equipment replacement capability and harden shelters suggest Japan has a close eye on Russia’s war in Europe. 

Beijing’s objection to the new strategy is ironic but unsurprising, considering its behaviour in recent years seems to be the biggest factor behind Japan’s raised threat assessment. The NSS lays this out in terms of capacity (the rapid and opaque increases in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military build up) to intent (intrusions into Japanese air and sea space), confirmed by the PRC’s irresponsible failure to use its influence to curb the DPRK’s continued violation of the very United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions on counter-proliferation it had voted for just a few years previously. Beijing not only refused to condemn the DPRK for firing banned missiles over Japanese territory. Its response to the visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States (US) House of Representatives, to Taiwan involved five Chinese ballistic missiles landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The NSS concludes that:

China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community, and present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community 

The question of what Japan is prepared to do in response to an attempt by the PRC to take control of Taiwan by force remains unanswered. However, clues lie scattered throughout the new documents, including the utilisation of manoeuvre and deployment capabilities to evacuate civilians and conduct civil protection missions. Extended use of civilian ports and airfields allowing the dispersal of Japanese forces would mitigate their exposure when engaged in duties to support the defence of Taiwan. 

Atop these rising dangers, the NSS observes that ‘it is becoming increasingly difficult for the United States, Japan’s ally with the world’s greatest comprehensive power, and international frameworks such as the G7 to manage risks in the international community and to maintain and develop a free and open international order.’ 

One conclusion of the above – that Japan is required to raise its annual defence budget (including ‘complementary initiatives’) to reach 2% of the current Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in other words the equivalent of around US$100 billion (£82.1 billion), by 2027 – therefore seems both proportionate and reasonable; some might even say overdue.

An ‘all of society’ approach?

More interesting is a new concept of ‘Comprehensive Defense Architecture’, which is briefly described as including research and development, public infrastructure development, cybersecurity and cooperation with like-minded countries. Looked at together, the following announcements indicate a trend toward a defence and security strategy that gains power by acquisition of new capabilities, and deepening integration in areas of command and control: 

  • Acquisition of capabilities for enhancing deterrence, e.g. a stand-off precision strike missile capability, initially by means of foreign procurement, followed by hypersonic weapon systems;
  • Accelerate reaction time and coherent decision making, as well as interoperability with allies, by establishing a Permanent Joint Headquarters;
  • Breaking down walls between the military and civilian space agencies: Establishment of an Air and Space Self-Defense Force to strengthen cooperation between the Japanese space agency and the self defence forces (SDF), exploit Japan’s civilian space technology, and promote the use of the space domain by the SDF and Japan Coast Guard;
  • Shedding legacy restrictions on the international sale and transfer of weapons, e.g. ‘considering revisions of the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, its Implementation Guidelines, and other systems in order to promote smooth transfer of defence equipment and technology of high security significance and others’; 
  • Stepping up on intelligence: ‘enhancing and strengthening the structure for collecting with regard to human intelligence, establishing a mechanism to aggregate information in an integrated manner and a new structure to aggregate and analyse information on disinformation from the perspective of bolstering the ability to respond to information warfare in the cognitive domain.’ 

These ambitions will bring down a weighty load on Japan’s legislative agenda. Some items will take years to work out, while others are more urgent; for example, steps to bolster Japan’s information security, including security clearance, will be essential for the success of projects like the ‘Global Combat Air System’ which has British and Italian partnership. There has been criticism that some of the reforms were not discussed with the public enough to gain their understanding. Those areas where civil society participation is needed, such as scientific research in universities, will have to overcome a reluctance to support work in the defence sector. The question of how to pay for defence budget increases over the next five years has been contentious even within the ruling party. 

If the 2022 NSS represents some kind of ‘turning point’, it is therefore perhaps less about Japan’s international identity or identification as ‘pacifist’; the really momentous change will show up in the reform of domestic institutions and shifting social attitudes to defence and security that will be required to bring the ‘reinforced comprehensive defence architecture’ described in the NSS into being.  

Gaining the understanding of citizens and institutions about the necessity to change and step up is a challenge that London and Tokyo also share, which is just as well, because it may yet prove the most difficult part of all.

There are two reasons to think that while this may be slow, it will succeed. The first is political stability. The leadership of Fumio Kishida, the Prime Minister, does not face strong institutionalised opposition to these reforms, and because of the political calendar it will enjoy a prolonged ‘golden period’ without elections, allowing it to focus on anchoring this vision in law. Second, the direction of leadership in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang gives little cause for optimism about trends in regional and global security, and some reasons to fear the situation may get even worse.

What does it mean for the UK?

Japan’s new NSS is a shot in the arm for nations that share an interest in preserving the values and principles of freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law in the international order. By facing up honestly to the forces challenging these, Japan is sending a signal of confidence in the ability of non-superpower nations to maintain the order that protects it.   

The ambition of Kishida’s NSS vindicates the UK’s choice of Japan as its main partner in the Indo-Pacific, and a strategic ally on projects such as the Global Combat Air Programme. The defence buildup programme confirms that the Defence Ministry ‘will strongly promote technical cooperation with domestic research institutes as well as allied and like-minded countries such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom’. 

At a moment when the UK is ‘refreshing’ its 2021 Integrated Review, Japan’s NSS seems well aligned with the analysis in London. As Admiral Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defence Staff, put it in his 2022 lecture at the Royal United Services Institute: 

…the biggest lesson from the past year is to recognise that we are part of a generational struggle for the future of the global order. And the alternative to thinking big, and to thinking on a global scale, is that we become an introspective, cautious nation, that looks the other way. And we’ve seen what happens when countries look away. Authoritarians are emboldened. Rules get broken, economic turmoil and global insecurity follow. And we all pay the price.

Radakin’s analysis and vision is bold but responsible. Japan’s strategy should inspire the rest of His Majesty’s (HM) Government in matching means to those ends. Gaining the understanding of citizens and institutions about the necessity to change and step up is a challenge that London and Tokyo also share, which is just as well, because it may yet prove the most difficult part of all.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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1 thought on “Japan’s new security strategy: rising to meet the challenge”

  1. Japan is prescient in shoring up its defences as geopolitics and geostrategies r being reordered. Ukraine’s outcome wd pivot Chinese coercive moves in the pacific n land borders in the west, challenging international liberal order. Sadly, Pacific is no Europe to defend shd mil aggression become a reality. South Korea must amp up too.

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