Japan’s Official Security Assistance: The Sleeping Giant Stirs?

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Japan’s Official Security Assistance: The Sleeping Giant Stirs?

Tokyo’s new security framework plays to Japan’s existing strengths by deepening existing partnerships, but remains constrained by long-standing norms and sensitivities. 

Japan’s Official Security Assistance: The Sleeping Giant Stirs?

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (right), shows a seat to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the start of their talks at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Credit: Kimimasa Mayama/Pool Photo via AP

Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), approved in late 2022 by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s administration, continues a long transition from the pacifist isolationism of the post-war era to what academics and advocates of a greater security role alike call “normalization” of the status of Japan’s armed forces.

Written in the context of numerous perceived challenges to Japan’s safety, such as continued North Korean missile testing and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the new NSS was never likely to reverse these long trends. Still, the growing confidence of Tokyo to take steps to defend itself against the hostile environment it perceives for itself is telling of how far the politics of security both in the Japanese political system and in the wider region have come since the publication of the first NSS in 2013.

Official Security Assistance (or OSA) is a new and untested field for Japan. It is a testament to both the possibilities created by the changing security discourse and the constraints it still faces. On the one hand, it promises equipment, supplies, and deepened security cooperation with “like-minded countries” which value peace, stability, and the rule of law, and it specifically cites the enhancement of deterrent capabilities as an objective. It is no stretch to say that such statements would have been unthinkable only a short while ago. 

On the other hand, it continues to be bound by the existing Principles on the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, which among other considerations prohibits the transfer of equipment to countries party to an active conflict (excluding Ukraine from the OSA framework), and it emphasizes the word “peace” or derivatives thereof no fewer than 18 times within the course of the three-page Implementation Guidelines document. Considering these contradictions, what can be learned from this new initiative?

OSA Has Been Decades in the Making

Much has been made of the so-called “Gulf War Syndrome” seen in the Japanese political sphere in the aftermath of the eponymous 1991 conflict. Heavily criticized for its “checkbook diplomacy” approach to international security, this period is widely considered to be a turning point in Japanese security discourse. In the following years, other attempts to change the isolationist status quo were met with fierce political and public opposition. In 2003, when Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s administration dispatched the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, more than half of the public were against it and the opposition even initiated a no-confidence motion. In 2015, when legislation was passed by the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense, protesters in the tens of thousands arrived outside the National Diet Building. 

OSA has thus far seen little or no such opposition. While it is still a fresh initiative and there is, of course, time for such opposition to develop, the immediate reaction has been muted. In Japan’s top daily newspapers, the response has been generally very matter-of-fact and even the Asahi Shimbun has not argued against the principle of OSA, only that it should remain limited to non-lethal aid. A march on Nagatacho has not materialized, nor is it likely to. 

This speaks to how far the security discourse has shifted in Japan. Security issues are being discussed with increased openness and acceptance, even among those traditionally opposed to overturning the pacifist norms of post-war Japan. In another example, when Abe, after his resignation but shortly before his murder, raised the possibility of Japan entering into a nuclear-sharing agreement, the response was again muted with Abe receiving remarkably little criticism in a country famed for its “nuclear allergy.” Likewise, the prospect of a “Taiwan Contingency” is raised by politicians not only from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but also from opposition parties, with increasing frequency, and the Ukraine crisis has seen policy shift away from soft cooperation with Russia to full engagement with Western allies in opposition to Moscow. 

OSA, viewed under these circumstances, seems like an almost inevitable outcome. Decades of slow but consistent melting of old pacifist isolationist norms paired with an increasingly realist-dominated security discourse in Japan has prepared policymaking circles for this shift. In almost all of the country’s political parties there is increasing acceptance of the severity of the security environment.  

What’s in a Name?

Of course, this does not mean that making changes to longstanding foreign policy and security norms has become easy for LDP politicians, as has been demonstrated by the recent debate on counterstrike capabilities. Considering this, the name “Official Security Assistance” itself was likely deliberately chosen to evoke the image of Japan’s well-received Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs, which are generally uncontroversial both within and outside of Japan itself. 

For the domestic constituency, the conceptualization of OSA as one-sided “assistance,” made on a grant basis to developing countries, is likely to assuage fears over entanglement in external conflicts. This is, of course, backed by the aforementioned guidelines that lethal aid cannot go to countries which are already party to a conflict and that OSA will not be provided where it might directly relate to a conflict, although this latter guideline leaves some room for maneuver, such as whether Japan could provide general purpose non-lethal military equipment to a party in a conflict. 

The guidelines further evoke the spirit in which both ODA and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have been utilized overseas in recent years, discussing humanitarian and disaster relief capacity and international peace cooperation, offering specific assurances that OSA will be provided conforming with purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter. OSA, as such, is depicted as Japan offering a helping hand. By presenting the initiative as almost a natural extension of existing ODA and focusing on the similarities to it, the initiative staves off criticism that it is overly militarized, even if it fundamentally is of a military nature. 

This is also likely intended to assuage fears among Japan’s neighbors. In a region renowned for its deep historical sensitivities, where even countries with considerable overlapping security interests such as South Korea have been skeptical of Japanese intentions over its moves to take a more proactive security role, presentation is crucial to success. It is no surprise, therefore, that Japan has chosen as its first four recipients of OSA countries to which it is also a major ODA donor, again showcasing how OSA is a natural extension of assistance rather than a new military initiative. In 2019-2020, OECD data listed Japan as the second-largest bilateral ODA donor to Fiji and the largest bilateral donor to Malaysia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

The extension of OSA to these countries first is therefore perhaps designed to raise as few eyebrows as possible since it will be much harder for neighbors to object to an increased level of existing assistance rather than an entirely new security initiative. This is especially so considering the strong emphasis in the official guidelines on humanitarianism and the need to conform with United Nations principles. OSA is not ODA, but it is clearly designed to mimic its appearance to a large degree. 

OSA as Testing Ground

The OSA framework as such remains deeply cautious in its approach. It specifically and deliberately targets only “like-minded countries” and couches itself in the language of assistance rather than outright strategic cooperation or alliance, and it has been formulated in a manner which is sensitive to the needs of both the domestic and international audiences with which the Japanese government must contend. 

Nonetheless, OSA represents yet another component of the steady loosening of Japan’s pacifist-isolationist norms, and it reflects the increased feeling of national insecurity among Japanese policymakers and members of the public. For policymakers, OSA appears to be something of a careful and measured toe-dipping exercise to see what the response will be to Japan engaging in more robust security cooperation in the future. Already, the idea of OSA or something similar being offered to Ukraine has been floated, despite this being an ostensible weakening of the guideline that OSA will not be extended where there is a possibility of it “directly relating to any international conflict.”

It also remains to be seen how the OSA framework will work in tandem with some of Japan’s other security initiatives, such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework that has been championed in recent years. If this framework is viewed as successful, it is likely that it will only expand further and deepen Japan’s security role not just within East Asia, but perhaps on the global stage. Japan, a sleeping giant in security terms, is perhaps finally beginning to stir.