Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Security Choices in an Uncertain East Asia

What kind of Japan will the region have to deal with in the coming decades?

By Titli Basu for
Japan’s Security Choices in an Uncertain East Asia
Credit: Japan Ministry of Defense

As the distribution of power in the regional order becomes fragmented with intensifying Sino-U.S. strategic competition, Japan remains at the front line of East Asian security. With Chinese unilateral and coercive efforts altering the status quo on the one hand and the complexity of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula on the other, Japan is compelled to revisit its strategic options as it navigates the most severe security environment in its post-war history.

However, as Japan reorients its exclusively defense oriented post-war security posture within the conceptual framework of positive pacifism, this in turn makes its East Asian neighbors anxious as the region struggles with toxic history, intensified nationalism, and contested sovereignty claims in addition to the existing Cold War structures. The key concern for East Asian states is: what kind of Japan will the region have to deal with in the coming decades?

Article 9 of the pacifist constitution and the U.S.-Japan security alliance constitute the nucleus of Japan’s security policy in the post-war era. However, pushing the boundary on the concept of right to collective self-defense within these two frames — Article 9, which restricts Japan’s use of force, on one hand and the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which urges greater burden sharing in alliance management, on the other — has presented a colossal challenge for Japanese policy elites.

Beyond the debate on Japan’s security identity and the narrative of it being a military pygmy, Japan has become one of the world’s foremost military powers in terms of aggregate defense spending and sophisticated military capabilities. Moreover, Japan has assumed greater responsibility in the traditional division of labor in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

In the post-war era, Japan has incrementally expanded the narrow interpretation of Article 9. Within the constraints of exclusively defense-oriented policy, discussions on developing an independent capability to strike foreign military bases or cost-benefit analyses of the nuclear option have taken place. Striking the enemy to neutralize its military capacity with the objective of securing Japan is considered by proponents a defensive military strategy — “offensive defense” or “active defense.”

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Maneuvering the East Asian security landscape which hosts nuclear powers and three out of the top 10 nations in terms of military expenditure, Japan is evaluating its options.

The Nuclear Option

The Japanese government maintains that possessing nuclear weapons is not unconstitutional. The possibility of a nuclear armed Japan gained attention when Kenneth N. Waltz, within the framework of his neorealist theory, stressed that Japan will eventually go nuclear.

Post-war Japan has at times weighed the nuclear option, particularly following China’s first nuclear test in 1960s. During the Cold War, Japan’s three non-nuclear principles coexisted with a secret deal with the United States permitting the reintroduction of nuclear weapons to Okinawa in certain contingencies. Japan’s political class has debated the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the parliament and others have urged discussion on revising the three non-nuclear principles.

Post-war Japan’s “nuclear allergy” is positioned within U.S. extended deterrence. Will Japan’s attitude toward nuclear weapons change in the absence of the latter, especially with its technological competence and a stockpile of 47 metric tons of plutonium?

Not necessarily. Tokyo’s policy decision not to go nuclear is influenced by three variables: its identity as a pacifist non-nuclear weapon state, commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and realist security calculations. Moreover, acquisition of nuclear weapons would adversely affect U.S.-Japan relations and further dent the favorable international environment necessary for Japanese security and economic development.

Alliance Security Dilemma

Pursuing Japan’s national interests within the U.S.-Japan alliance framework demands undoing the critique of asymmetrical reciprocity. For this 70-plus-year-old alliance to serve as an effective regional stabilizer, its scope needs to be normalized, equalized, and enlarged. The “ironclad” defense pledges in the alliance exist alongside the security dilemma of abandonment and entrapment dynamics. On one hand, as the secondary power who is more dependent on the U.S. for its security, abandonment apprehension is prevalent in Japanese discourse. On the other hand, U.S. entrapment concerns regarding the East China Sea are a reality given the high costs of a military confrontation with China.

As Washington demands mutuality in alliance arrangements, Japan has stepped up in coordinating with the United States within its Defense Guidelines, which anchor the division of roles between Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) and the U.S. forces and outline how militaries will interact in peacetime and during contingencies, through the whole-of-government Alliance Coordination Mechanism. Japan and the U.S. forces enjoy high interoperability, and a majority of the big-ticket items acquired by Japan are being procured or coproduced under license from America.

The challenge of alliance management and hedging against U.S. abandonment under President Donald Trump’s insular “America First” approach while managing geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges is testing Tokyo’s options. Japan will certainly continue to incrementally step up its contribution toward the alliance as the top priority with the intention of averting abandonment and shaping a regional order favorable to Japan’s national interests. Nevertheless, the gradual erosion of U.S. primacy and fluidity in the regional security architecture is making Japan weigh the depth of American commitment to Japan’s security. In some quarters, this is also leading to arguments in favor of Japan becoming more self-reliant in terms of security.

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A “Normal” Japan

The normalization proposition remains at the heart of the security debate. The concept of normalization does not imply militarization. It is rather situated in the context of enabling Japan to contribute to international peacekeeping activities and constitutional change. Ichiro Ozawa’s seminal work Blueprint for a New Japan: The Rethinking of a Nation is a valuable account on this line of thinking.

The conversation on a “normal” Japan gained momentum during the Gulf War, following Japan’s failed effort to send out the SDF in support of the U.S.-led, U.N.-authorized coalition, and the subsequent criticism of Japan for checkbook diplomacy after Tokyo’s contribution of $13 billion. The normalists contest the notion of Japan’s exceptionalism, drawn from its World War II experience and the subsequent constitutional constraint limiting Japan’s normal participation in international affairs. They support constitutional revision of Article 9 and support progressively increasing Japan’s responsibilities within the alliance frame in order to assist the United States in managing the global order.

But Tokyo’s normalization discourse has raised alarm among regional neighbors as they envisage what Japan aims to accomplish under the rubric of normalization. Beijing and Pyongyang have often accused Tokyo of engineering an external threat argument to realize the objective of remilitarization.

Maximizing Autonomy

Undoing the post-war political order imposed by American occupation is often pushed by the far-right, who lack trust in the U.S. commitment to protect Japan under Article 5 of the security treaty. They support rearming Japan, commensurate with its economic status, since it is irrational for a resource-deficient Japan to rely on other nations for secured passage of its critical supplies in the maritime space.

Nevertheless, in the current strategic environment, given the costs and challenges of attaining security by means of maximizing autonomy or multilateralism, Tokyo’s best option remains bolstering its alliance with the United States. Japan’s pursuit of autonomy outside the alliance framework would erode U.S. protection. In addition, it will also deepen the trust deficit among regional stakeholders.

Japan opposes the rise of a Sino-centric regional order. Being a “beneficiary” of the U.S.-led international order, Japan’s resolve is to buttress that order, even as the balance of power shifts in East Asia. Going forward, Japan will continue to build its deterrence and incrementally expand the role of the SDF within the framework of the U.S. alliance.

While Washington waits for Tokyo to assume greater responsibilities in managing regional security, the challenge for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to articulate in certain terms what entails a “proactive contribution to peace.” Abe must solve the puzzle of demonstrating to its most valued strategic partner that Tokyo is ready to share the load of safeguarding regional security, while factoring in the sensitivities of regional stakeholders.

Dr. Titli Basu is Associate Fellow at the East Asia Centre in Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India.