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From Follower to Leader: Japan’s Emergence as a Fully-Fledged Regional Security Actor 

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From Follower to Leader: Japan’s Emergence as a Fully-Fledged Regional Security Actor 

Not only has Japan become an indispensable ally for the U.S. in contingency planning, but Tokyo is also no longer relying solely on the United States to deter China.

From Follower to Leader: Japan’s Emergence as a Fully-Fledged Regional Security Actor 
Credit: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

Japan no longer needs U.S. pressure to undertake a radical expansion in its defense capabilities and security commitments. Rising threat levels in Japan’s regional environment, particularly from China, have become the most important factor driving change in these areas of government policy, as well as changing public attitudes toward dramatically increasing defense capabilities and expenditure.

Japan, like other regional allies of the United States such as South Korea and Australia, realizes that it has to “step up” to maintain the military power balance in the region, given the decline in U.S. power relative to its main protagonist – China – as well as considerations relating to North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and expanding military presence in sea and airspace around Japan.

Japan’s emergence as a fully-fledged security actor is also being driven by China’s increasingly hostile and aggressive policy toward Taiwan and the attendant risks a potential military scenario launched by China would pose to Japan’s own security. This has necessitated Japan’s independent preparations for a potential conflict with China over Taiwan, with a strong focus on deterrence as well as joint preparations with the United States for combined military operations.

Japan is also being strategically wise in its emphasis on prioritizing expanding and upgrading its military forces to prepare for an air and maritime war given the likelihood of this scenario, including hardening and expanding the number of its strategically located military bases and building stocks of weapons and ammunition. Most significant, however, is the substantial change in Japan’s defense policy and military doctrine to allow a massive boost to its own indigenous deterrence capabilities centering on missile counterstrike capabilities.

Such is the critical importance of Japan’s potential military role in a Taiwan contingency, including U.S. dependence on its contributions in important areas such as military fortification of Japan’s southwest islands close to Taiwan, that it has now assumed the position of an indispensable ally. Japan and the United States are interacting and operating more as “regional partners,” which also includes jointly strengthening “alliance activities with allies and partners within and beyond the region.” What is more, not only has Japan become a fully-fledged regional security actor in its own right but it is also no longer relying solely on the United States to deter China. “The former ‘junior colleague’ of U.S. military interests in Asia is suddenly a partner with its own agenda and geostrategies,” as the Japan Forum for Innovation and Technology (JFIT) at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy put it.

This strategic reversal can be traced back to the Trump administration, which raised serious doubts in Japan about the United States’ commitment to defend it in the event of an attack. The former U.S. president was openly hostile toward alliance “burdens” and pressured allies to do more and spend more on their own defense. The Biden administration has done much to assuage these concerns, particularly with the concept of “extended deterrence,” but it has not erased them entirely – especially with Donald Trump planning to run for re-election in 2024.

Japan has even moved to reduce its reliance on the United States for strike capabilities, with Japan’s planned acquisition of its own counterstrike deterrence capability. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has himself stated in the Diet that Japan will not be depending entirely on the United States after acquiring strike capabilities and may, indeed, work together with the United States in exercising such capabilities in the future as part of a concerted policy of enhancing Japan’s own deterrence and response capabilities.

In some respects, Japan’s security dependence has even been reversed, with the United States relying more on Japan. According to the minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, “We are relying on Japan in ways that were unthinkable even a few years ago.”

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, for example, expressed a wish for the United States to be able to harness Japan’s industrial base – including non-defense industries – to play a bigger role in the bilateral alliance, saying, “we actually need Japan’s industrial base to be part of the solution.” He gave several examples where the United States and Japan could combine their respective strengths to increase deterrence in the face of threats from China, such as shipbuilding. Japan would be a strong asset given its expertise and industrial base in shipbuilding, where China’s capacity is currently exceeding that of the United States.

More broadly, Emanuel pointed out that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had also spoken about the need to harness allies’ industrial-military capability. In Emanuel’s words, Japan would have a lot to contribute in this area “not only for their own defense but also for our collective defense.” This would be assisted by Japan’s more proactive policy of bolstering its own defense industrial base, including in its new 2022 National Security Strategy. The policy stressed the need to boost Japan’s defense production and technology sectors at the same time as expanding equipment and technological cooperation with the United States and other security partners. The Japanese government is also reviewing its principles on defense equipment transfers in order to facilitate exports of military equipment, such as tanks and missiles, to allies.

Another significant aspect of Japan’s strategy is to rapidly multiply the number of its security partners outside the bilateral U.S. alliance given the realization that it needs other partners to counter the growing threats to its security. As Kuni Miyake argued for the Japan Times, “given China’s rapid military buildup, the alliance with the United States…may no longer be sufficient.” Indeed, Japan is increasingly looking to bolster its defense ties with other partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Japan is pursuing closer defense and security ties with Australia, the Philippines, and South Korea, as well as European nations such as the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany. As John Nylin, the minster-counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, put it, “Japan sees itself in the world in a changing way…. showing a greater willingness to partner.”

Moreover, not only is Tokyo looking to bolster a broader Indo-Pacific strategy by promoting security cooperation with other like-minded democracies, but it is also supplementing this approach by supplying non-lethal aid in the form of equipment to the armed forces of other countries under the rubric of Official Security Assistance (OSA).

Japan’s shift from follower to leader in security affairs began under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s administration from 2012-2020. In his mission to change the Indo-Pacific security architecture, Abe moved Japan into a strategic leadership role with a number of significant policy initiatives, making a unique contribution to regional security. Japan became a leader – and the United States a follower – with the launching of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept. The Abe government was also a primary driver behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) linking Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

Abe held the view that “Japan’s security environment is more urgent than it has been in a century.” To address that, he also sought to multiply Japan’s security relationships across a much broader spectrum of allies, quasi-allies, strategic partnerships, and “friends,” putting Japan into the position of an active initiator and participant in building a multilayered security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. He also spearheaded Japan’s connections with Taiwan.

Kishida, formerly Abe’s foreign minister, is proactively pursuing a similar path, including putting his own stamp on the FOIP by giving more concrete substance to the concept. This involves the launching of an economic assistance program for countries in the so-called Global South, developing and emerging nations principally in the southern hemisphere. Kishida laid out his plan during a visit to India in March this year, pledging more than $75 billion in infrastructure and security assistance for the Indo-Pacific in response to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calls for support for less developed countries.

What was particularly significant about this move was Kishida’s strategic use of ODA to develop the FOIP, with the action plan calling for respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity along with opposition to “unilateral changes to the status quo by force” – the standard reference to China’s international behavior in the Western Pacific. Kishida later followed up by inviting the leaders of Brazil, Indonesia, India, and the Comoros to the G-7 Hiroshima Summit in May 2023.

The strategic logic behind Kishida’s plan is to counterbalance China’s proactive policy of expanding its influence over developing countries and to try and reinforce the global commitment to a free and open international order based on the rule of law – language that not only fits with the FOIP concept but is also relevant in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Kishida said in his India speech, “From ASEAN and the Pacific island countries to the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America, we will further expand the circle of countries that share the vision of FOIP and promote initiatives in the spirit of co-creation.”

Japan is thus on track to become a power of global influence and to push back against China all around the world. At the same time, it is trying to reduce its economic reliance on China, particularly on matters relating to economic security, the protection of cyber infrastructure, and emerging technology with the threats posed by China in these fields in mind. This suggests that Japan’s China policy will henceforth be primarily shaped by new security and defense priorities rather than by more traditional economic and trade objectives.