Japan’s Major Turning Point on Defense Policy

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Japan’s Major Turning Point on Defense Policy

Three new security documents prepared by the Kishida administration mark a new era in Japan’s post-war security strategy.

Japan’s Major Turning Point on Defense Policy

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Murasame-class destroyer JS Ikazuchi transits Uraga Channel in front of Mt. Fuji, Feb. 17, 2016.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. William McGough

Japan has marked a critical milestone in efforts to reshape its defense strategy, increase the national defense spending, and allow Tokyo to acquire a counterstrike missile capability.

On December 16, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s cabinet approved the nation’s three key security documents, which will mark a major turning point in Japan’s post-war policy of maintaining an exclusively defense-oriented policy if realized. Japan is in the process of returning to “a normal nation” in the long run by allowing the nation’s possession – and the possible use – of offensive capabilities to strike against enemy missile bases in the event of an armed attack on Tokyo.

Tokyo “is in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since World War II,” pointed out the new National Security Strategy (NSS), which is positioned at the top of the three documents.

It added that “under the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), it is vitally important for Japan’s security to cooperate with allies and like-minded countries to ensure peace and stability in the region.” Those countries mentioned in the NSS are the United States, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, among others.

The other two documents are the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP), which were approved along with the NSS at the same time for the first time. Together, these three documents will shape Japan’s overall strategy, defense policy, and defense acquisition goals.

The NSS provides the nation’s highest-level strategic guidance for diplomacy, defense, economic security, technology, cyber, and intelligence over the next decade. It has been revised for first time since its establishment in December 2013.

The NDS, formally known as the National Defense Program Guidelines, sets defense objectives and presents ways and means to achieve the objectives. The NDS has come in line with the U.S. Defense Department’s naming convention this time.

The DBP, known earlier as the Medium-Term Defense Program, lays out total defense expenditures and procurement volumes for major equipment for the next five to 10 years.

The DBP document will see Japan increase defense spending to 43 trillion yen ($314 billion) from fiscal year 2023 to 2027. This is a 56.5 percent increase from the 27.47 trillion yen in the current five-year plan, which covers fiscal year 2019 to 2023. This will increase Japan’s defense spending to the NATO standard of 2 percent of the national GDP in 2027 − following Kishida’s instructions to his defense and finance ministers to do so in late November.

The increased defense spending will allow Japan to acquire many standoff missiles that can be used for counterforce strike, including U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Is This a Departure From Japan’s Exclusively Defense-Oriented Policy?

As a reason for acquiring such a counterstrike capability, government officials stressed that missile strike capabilities in the region have significantly improved in both qualitative and quantitative terms, so Tokyo has been forced to enhance its missile defense capabilities. If Japan continues to rely only upon ballistic missile defenses (BMD), officials said, it will become increasingly difficult for Japan to fully address missile threats with its existing missile defense network alone.

Government officials also stressed that a counterstrike capability is within the scope of the pacifist Japanese Constitution and international law, and will not change the concept of exclusively defense-oriented policy, called senshu boei in Japanese. They also pointed out that any offensive capability will be used only if a situation fulfills the so-called Three New Conditions for use of force. There will be no change in Japan’s prohibition on preemptive strikes.

The three conditions for Tokyo’s use of counterstrike missiles are: When an armed attack against Japan or a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Tokyo threatens Japan’s national survival, if there are no other appropriate measures to remove the threat, and if the use of force is limited to a minimum necessity.

Is China a Threat?

The biggest focus of the three security documents is how to deal with a rising China. How will Japan defend itself in the face of China’s rapid military rise? How much defense capability and defense budget will Japan need to confront China? Those are the fundamental questions behind the documents, although never explicitly stated there.

The updated language of the NSS describes China as “the biggest strategic challenge” for Japan, while the 2013 version of the NSS only called China’s actions an “issue of concern to the international community.”

Notably, Japan avoided specifying China as a “threat” even in the updated documents. A major reason for that is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s political consideration for its junior coalition partner, Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist group. Historically, this religious organization has strong ties with Beijing as it helped lay the groundwork for then-Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and his foreign minister, Ohira Masayoshi, to normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1972.

In addition, Kishida, who heads the Kochikai faction of the LDP – traditionally more dovish and pro-engagement with Japan’s neighbors – has repeatedly said, “It is important to build constructive and stable relations with China.”

The language used for China sharply contrasts with the fact that the NSS this time describes North Korea as “an even more grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security than ever before.”

At the pre-release press briefing held on December 13, I asked the question: “Why didn’t you specify China as a threat?”

In response, a senior official from the Cabinet Secretariat stressed that the Japanese government needs to look at China from multiple perspectives.

“While Japan must develop its defense capabilities by keeping a close eye on China’s national goals, military trends, and military capabilities, China is the second largest economy in the world, so we need to encourage them to be firmly engaged in the international framework. When considering various aspects such as military, economic, and diplomatic aspects, it is not a good idea to simply use the word ‘threat’ toward China,” the official said.

“We call China ‘the greatest strategic challenge ever,’ but that ‘strategic’ also means that we must look at it from different perspectives,” the official added.

On top of that, the Cabinet Secretariat official pointed out that even in the National Security Strategy released by the U.S. government in October, China was identified as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” The official said Japan and the United States are in step with each other on important documents.

That said, the United States has sometimes referred to China as a “threat” in its important documents. For example, the new strategy “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power” complied by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in December 2020 repeatedly refers to China as a “threat.”

It is true a dualistic framework – such as conceiving another country as either “threat” or “not a threat” – tends to stir up confrontation and instability. Dualism, especially when intertwined with territorial and historical issues, can lead to a surge of nationalism and patriotism in each country and a loss of self-control.

On the other hand, it is also true that an ambiguous attitude weakens deterrence against other countries and may increase the risk of conflict. An ambiguous strategy can cause misunderstandings and unexpected conflicts, leading to dangerous situations. By contrast, a clear strategy easily spreads to national institutions and enhances the ability to implement policies, and increases internal and external transparency.

U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that the U.S. military will protect Taiwan if China invades Taiwan. Apparently, by doing so Biden aims to reduce the risk of an emergency in Taiwan. However, there is no consensus on this, even within the United States – critics argue that Biden’s clarity actually increases the risk of a conflict.

The United States sees China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” Washington has positioned the next decade – the same period covered by Japan’s three new security documents –  as a critical period.

How should Japan deal with China? The country will continue to wrestle with that question greatly in the coming decade.