The views expressed are the authors’ and by no means reflect the positions of the Japanese government.
Japan is doubling its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027. For fiscal year 2023, it will reach 6.8 trillion yen – some $50 billion today. In 2020, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranked Japan ninth in terms of military spending after the U.S., China, India, Russia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, and before South Korea. Japan’s defense spending was low as a share of GDP. It has decided to align itself with the NATO recommendation of 2 percent of GDP.
What has changed? North Korea has been a threat since its first nuclear test. It now has non-ballistic missiles, with non-linear trajectories, and may be able to miniaturize its nuclear warheads. China’s defense budget is five times the size of Japan’s. More importantly, the war in Ukraine occurred. The Taiwan crisis last summer highlighted a certain unpredictability in the Indo-Pacific, now that war was again dividing Europe. The war in Ukraine was read in Japan as a warning. “Today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia,” Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said last year. Japan would expect a similar concern in return should a “crisis” occur in its backyard: for Tokyo both regions have similar challenges. Enhanced military coordination between Russia and China involving joint heavy-bomber flights and naval cruises further contributed to Japan’s decision to side with its Western partners.
Having announced a massive defense budget increase, Japan soon published four security-related documents – a National Security Strategy, a National Defense Strategy, a Defense Equipment Program, and new Guidelines on Maritime security.
Ahead of the adoption of the National Security Strategy (NSS), there was much debate in policy circles on how to address China. The wording on China was strengthened from the document’s 2013 iteration, but the most substantial change is how Russia is perceived, post-Ukraine. In 2013, Russia was described as a partner with which to face the rise of China. In 2022, Russia is a matter of “grave security concern.”
The second document, the National Defense Strategy, sets out Japan’s defense priorities in the face of mounting threats. Its predecessors were called “Guidelines for National Defense.” The first, in 1976, set a ceiling on expanding defense expenditure, based on the Basic Defense doctrine (Kibanteki bôeiryoku). This was the basis for the symbolic and long-kept 1 percent cap on defense spending.
Freeing Japanese defense policy from the shackles of those earlier guidelines proved the main challenge for Japan’s administrations over the years. The Basic Defense doctrine set out the minimum military requirements regardless of regional capabilities; Japanese capabilities were considered in absolute, not relative, terms. Japan, like a fort, had to be impregnable, but there was little thought of matching adverse capabilities. In 2010, this posture was abandoned and the defense guidelines started addressing Japan’s needs in consideration of neighboring threats.
The new documents take Japan’s doctrinal thinking yet one step further. The Defense Equipment “Build-up” Program used to define the limits of the guidelines, and until 2013 there was no strategy to speak of. Now equipment needs derive from the defense strategy, which is based on the security strategy: strategy now comes first.
Beyond those elements of change, the NSS shows continuity in the principles it asserts: pro-active pacifism with respect to international cooperation, as per the 2015 reforms; adherence and promotion of universal values – freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law; lastly, a defensive approach to defense (senshu bôei). The latter means Japan will use strictly minimum defensive means only when under attack. Furthermore, Japan will uphold its non-nuclear three principles, an important reminder in the context of the war in Ukraine and the debates it opened in Japan on deterrence.
The NSS confirms the strong link which Japan has come to establish between defense and diplomacy. Since Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s first mandate, Japan has been using diplomacy to improve its security, and conducting defense diplomacy. Every diplomatic action now has a security dimension to it: a “securitization” of diplomacy has been taking place. The boundary between diplomacy and defense is increasingly blurred in an overarching effort to improve Japan’s security.
The bilateral alliance with the U.S. and multilateralism remain the cornerstones of Japan’s approach to security, which serves to protect Japan’s national interests (defined as its sovereignty, prosperity, and values). In addressing such interests, Japan takes a comprehensive approach, the roots of which date back to the end of the 1970s. The small but novel Ministry of Foreign Affairs budget line (2 billion yen) for supporting defense efforts of partner countries apart from official development assistance shows another step in this direction.
The National Defense Strategy (NDS) fills the massive gaps in Japan’s defense posture. It increases deterrence through “stand-off defense capabilities” including hypersonic and hypervelocity gliders and a new “counterstrike” capacity to be exercised in conformity with the traditional self-defense criteria. It prepares for an aggression with integrated air-and-missile-defense capabilities including with unmanned defense vehicles; cyber, electromagnetic, space capabilities and cross-domain capabilities (those moving across the six domains in which military organizations operate: air, land, space, sea (maritime), human (cyber), and the electromagnetic spectrum). Japan strengthens its chain of command by creating a joint (integrated) command, requires better information-sharing and intelligence capabilities, and will improve its sustainability and resiliency in a range of areas (for example, Japan requires more ammunition, the better protection of its civilian air and seaports, of its storage facilities and so on).
The NDS also introduces Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and Japan Self-Defense Force cooperation. Indeed, a fourth document was adopted along with the others, which went largely unnoticed: Guidelines for the Reinforcement of the Japan Coast-Guards. Its aim is to cope with the intensification of Chinese activities around the Senkaku islands, and the East and South China sea. Concerns about North Korean and Russian hostile maritime activities are also mentioned. The JCG budget will be increased by 50 percent in the coming five years. The guidelines deal with a matter never properly addressed hitherto: Article 80 of the Self-Defense Forces law which in the event of an armed attack authorizes the prime minister to give the minister of defense control over the Coast Guard.
Yet no procedure for that to happen has yet been adopted, and the Self-Defense Forces and Coast Guard rarely interact in this regard. The guidelines advocate for the adoption of a standard procedure and joint exercises to prepare for such an eventuality. However according to Article 25 of the JCG law, they can have no military role. The guidelines can but emphasize that the two agencies are supposed to “act according to their respective roles.” Therefore, what the JCG could be ordered to do in a time of contingency remains to be established.
Relations with like-minded partners are considered essential by the NSS and the NDS alike. Earlier this year, Japan signed a defense treaty with the U.K., a “Reciprocal Access Agreement,” after signing one with Australia in 2022. In addition to the now traditional partners – the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and India – relations are to be established with the Baltic states, Central Europe (the Czech Republic and Poland), and Canada.
With the U.S., last month’s meeting of Prime Minister Kishida and President Joe Biden, following the “2+2” with Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu took in Japan’s new defense documents. Counterstrike capabilities will be exercised by Japan in close coordination with the U.S., and an attack of Japanese satellites could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty: the destruction of one of Japan’s satellites would be akin to an act of aggression and trigger the treaty intervention mechanisms. Furthermore, the defense ministers signed a research, development, test and evaluation memorandum of understanding and a (non-binding) security of supply arrangement in January 2023, committing to working together on emerging technologies and defense-supply chains.
Challenges abound. How such programs will be financed remains the subject of political debate, and how to attract young people to a career in the SDF in the context of a massive population decline (Japan has the same number of births annually as France, around 600,000, with a population twice as large).
Cooperation with local governments, which manage seaports and some of the airports is critically important for the effective and smooth operations of JSDF including the protection of civilian nationals. Ultimately, engaging in “counterstrikes” will be a political decision, which to appear legitimate would require a broad consensus. The respective roles and missions of the JSDF and JCG in a time of contingency is largely an unexplored domain.
Nonetheless, the goal is set for Japan to move ahead.