Japan's Defense Policy Decisions in 2018


On December 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a speech at a conference held at Kyodo News. Much of his speech was about how he envisions continuing his efforts to revitalize the Japanese economy. However, in his discussion of upcoming revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) — a defense policy document that guides the Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP), the acquisition plan — Abe said something unprecedented: that, while continuing to uphold an exclusively defense-oriented posture and other fundamental principles, the upcoming NDPG revision will not be considered based on a linear projection of the past evolution of Japanese defense policy. Rather, Abe stressed, the revision will be based on an honest assessment of the aggravated security situation that Japan finds itself in today.

Abe’s comments are illustrative of his sense of urgency regarding the rapidly worsening security environment in Northeast Asia. Indeed, just in this past year, unrelenting pressure from China in the East China Sea and heightening tensions on the Korea Peninsula, aggravated by the accelerated pace of North Korea’s provocative behavior, created a “new normal” for Japan, where Tokyo now has to remain on constant alert toward the surrounding security situation. The problem for Abe is that the situation will be unlikely to improve much for Japan in 2018.

As Japan heads into deliberations on the revisions of the NDPG and MTDP this year, there are a few major decisions that await. Thees decisions will be critical, as each will determine the baseline of Japan’s force posture for the next several decades.

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One example is whether Japan will decide to acquire its own strike capabilities. The “to have, or not to have” debate over this capability itself long predates the current tension on the Korean Peninsula — after all, the Japanese government has established its official position that the possession of the capability to attack enemies is deemed constitutional when there is no other measure to defend itself from external aggression since February 1956. Today, however, this debate has gained a much greater sense of urgency as North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats increase at a much faster pace than had been anticipated in the past. The impact of where Japan comes out on this issue can be potentially considerable, as it will open the door for the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to conduct a wholesale revision of its operational concept, but it also will lead to further discussion between Tokyo and Washington in regards to the responsibility-sharing between their two militaries in various regional contingencies.

Another example is how much Japan wants to emphasize cyber and space — two new emerging battle domains — in its new NDPG, and to what degree it is willing to invest in enhancing JSDF capabilities in these two domains. Japan’s current National Security Strategy positions both space and cyberspace as part of “global commons” that are critical for Japan’s national security, calling for public-private partnership and better inter-agency coordination in these areas. The NDPG stresses their significance to Japan’s defense capability based on its need for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). However, these areas, particularly cybersecurity, have lagged in past years, both in investments and development of human resources, as the budget is prioritized for tangible platforms.  Given the increasing importance of space and cyber in today’s military operations, the Japanese government needs to decide how much it is willing to invest in buttressing JSDF capabilities in these areas.

The challenge for Japan is to find a way to strike a balance between its need to acquire additional capabilities to respond to the renewed and heightened threat from North Korea on one hand, and to continue to develop the capabilities for its remote island defense to effectively deter China’s “gray zone” activities on the other, while trying to increase the resilience of JSDF capabilities by making investments in emerging battle domains. Although Abe’s declared in last month’s speech that his government would not revise these guiding documents based merely on past decisions, that is far easier said than done. Japan has already committed itself to acquiring several expensive items based on the current NDPG and MTDP. The F-35A, Global Hawk, Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), C-2, and P-1 are the examples of such new assets. If Tokyo does not anticipate any of these acquisition decisions to be significantly downsized, postponed, or canceled, any new defense investments (such as the one Tokyo claims it wants to make in cybersecurity) need to be fiscally feasible.

This raises the ultimate challenge for Japan as it goes into revising the NDPG and MTDP this year — how much of a defense budget increase can it anticipate? Although Japan’s defense budget has been increasing since Abe took office at the end of 2012, the increase has not been enough to allow the JSDF to recover from the hollowing out of the force it experienced in the previous decade, when Japan’s defense budget had shrunk. In order to minimize the negative impact of a zero-sum trade within the defense budget, Japan will not only have to continue the current trend of increasing the defense budget, but also may have to be willing to justify a considerable increase. Needless to say, to achieve this in Japan’s current fiscal environment is not an easy task.

On January 1, Abe declared in his New Year’s Reflection that 2018 will be “the year of putting our plans into execution.” His pledge will certainly be tested in defense policy, as the NDPG and MTDP revision will take shape over the course of next several months.

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