In December 2022, Japan announced a new National Security Strategy, including a significant increase of the defense budget and the acquisition of offensive weaponry. While the decision has been praised among the hawks of U.S. and transatlantic foreign policymaking, it is stirring up old ghosts of Japanese militarism in East Asia. At the same time, Japan has been advocating for nuclear disarmament, including at the recent G-7 meeting in Hiroshima; made tremendous headway in mending relations with South Korea; and engaged in meaningful dialogue with China, including a meeting between defense ministers in Singapore on June 3.
Japan is on a multi-dimensional security trajectory, but what does that mean for the future of Asia? This three-part series explores some of the implications. The first article discussed key aspects of Japan’s past security policies; this second article summarizes the recent security debate in Tokyo; and the third article will evaluate the country’s new security strategy.
New Strategy: Counterstrike Yes, Counterattack No
In December 2022, the Kishida government decided to double Japan’s annual defense related expenditures over the next five years to 2 percent of GDP. Although only 70 percent of that will go directly to the military, Japan is now approaching the same defense expenditure level that NATO countries are committed to. Simultaneously, the government published a new National Security Strategy (NSS) together with two more reports, outlining that Japan needed “counterstrike capabilities” in the form of offensive missile systems with the ability to strike deep into the North Korean and Chinese heartlands.
In Western media, this has been widely regarded as a major policy shift and even a departure by Japan from its post-war peace-oriented defense policy. A cover-page Time magazine article even featured the title “Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wants to abandon decades of pacifism – and make his country a true military power.”
Kishida’s office protested the headline, saying Time distorted the content of the exclusive interview. Obviously, the Kishida government does not view its new strategy as a militarist one. But what to believe?
The new NSS is the latest iteration of the same document from 2013 and several National Defense Program Guidelines of previous years. The inclusion of the word “counterstrike” is certainly the most radical departure from earlier documents, which did not include that concept. However, it is important to note that “counterstrike” is exclusively used in the domain of missile defense.
Since Japan’s greatest strategic fears relate to missile attacks from North Korea (and to a lower degree from China), Japan has already been making extensive use of U.S.-manufactured Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems for nearly 20 years, but those were strictly for the purpose of shooting down incoming threats. Switching to a deterrence strategy – in which Japan signals to China and North Korea that it could lay waste to their military infrastructure if they fired at Japanese soil – indeed looks like uncharted territory for Tokyo.
Japanese security experts, however, seem to agree with Kishida. They, too, see the policy as an evolution of the previous defense-oriented strategy rather than a reversal. Iwama Yoko, the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) remarked at a recent public seminar: “Have we given up the difference [between offensive and defensive abilities]? I don’t really think so. I still think Japan is a country committed to defense, and exclusively defense, and only to use military forces in cases of defense. But the means with which we are planning to achieve that objective is changing.”
Which one is it, though? Can counterstrike capabilities be of an exclusively defensive nature? The formulation of the NSS, in fact, affirms this. The document rules out a first strike in the strongest terms: “Needless to say, preemptive strikes, namely striking first at a stage when no armed attack has occurred, remain impermissible.” Nor does it contemplate counterstrikes as a means to threaten the civilian infrastructure of an adversary (as nuclear weapons do).
Instead, the NSS talks about “capabilities which, in the case of missile attacks by an opponent, enable Japan to mount effective counterstrikes against the opponent to prevent further attacks… as long as it is deemed that there are no other means to defend against attack…”
Hence, Japan’s understanding of “counterstrike” is not that of a punitive “counterattack.” It relates exclusively to the realm of ballistic missiles if no other means of defense are available.
What Is Actually New?
Interestingly, Iwama’s assessment of the NSS is that “what’s really new [is] the admission that you actually have to defend yourself, on your own if necessary. I find that quite refreshing because we had this tradition of hiding behind somebody – big brother – for a very long time. And if you read the new NSS you find several indications that in the end, you have to do it yourself. And I think this resolve is very new.”
Aware of the time it will take Japan to build the military infrastructure needed, she added, “It’s still a resolve. It’s not a capability yet.”
In addition, more hawkish Japanese security thinkers argue that the novelty of the new NSS is that Japan for the first time commits to the defense of Taiwan and South Korea: “If there is a war across the Taiwan Strait, the likelihood is Japan will commit its armed forces… to assist Taiwan together with the United States,” said Michishita Narushige, a professor for Japanese foreign policy and defense and vice president of GRIPS, at the same public seminar.
However, this claim is much less clearly formulated in the new NSS. It mentions Taiwan and South Korea multiple times but does not promise their defense or the support of U.S. troops. On Taiwan, the most important passage remains highly ambivalent: “Japan’s basic position regarding Taiwan remains unchanged. … Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is an indispensable element for the security and prosperity of the international community, and Japan will continue to make various efforts based on its position that the cross-strait issues are expected to be resolved peacefully.”
Likewise, for South Korea (formally the Republic of Korea or ROK), the new NSS speaks merely about its importance to Japan. The strategy says that Tokyo will “enhance Japan-ROK and Japan-U.S.-ROK strategic coordination, including in the area of security.” From these statements, there is no good reason to judge that Japan would automatically come to the defense of either Taiwan or South Korea.
And looking at domestic sentiment, at least for the moment that “dying for Taipei” (or Seoul) is not a slogan that would rally much support in the general public. A recent opinion poll found that 56 percent of Japanese think the country should only engage in rearguard support of the United States in case of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait and 27 percent said Japan should not engage at all. Only 11 percent were in favor of Japan using force itself.
Japan’s security community is keenly aware of the role public opinion has on Japan’s defense stance. Michishita pointed out that China would likely use the public’s pacifist sentiment to its advantage:
In case of conflict across the Taiwan Strait, China would definitely like to prevent Japan from assisting Taiwan. They would say things as ‘Oh, Japanese people, I love you. So, you are saying that you want to help Taiwan, but this is an internal affair of the Chinese people. Don’t intervene in our domestic affairs. And by the way, if you really decide to get into this, we would be forced to attack you – your country. Would you be willing to sacrifice Tokyo for Taipei?’
A Question of Strategic Vision
The different interpretation of the novelty in the 2022 NSS between Iwama and Michishita is indicative of Japan’s ambiguity in its new security approach and the internal disagreements in the security community. Michishita’s reading represents the more hawkish wing in Tokyo, which would like to see tighter integration between JSDF and U.S. forces to increase Japanese deterrence. Iwama, by contrast, seems to see the need for Japan to build what the French have come to call “strategic autonomy” in case the United States abandoned Japan one day – or did something so foolish that Japan had no other choice but to leave the alliance.
Without a doubt, both schools of thought are present in Tokyo and, for the time being, they are not so much rivals as complementary views on national defense. One advocates for “peace through strength,” the other for “strength through peace,” but they agree on realism-based policymaking. That became clear in a short direct exchange about the merits – and sequencing – of diplomacy and military build-up:
Michishita: If you say “let’s talk” from the beginning, you may look weak, unfortunately. And that might embolden your potential adversary and backfire. So, what I think we should be doing, and I think that’s what we are doing actually, is to build up on our capabilities for deterrence first, and then in a second step, we start talking to them [the Chinese and North Koreans]. As NATO did in 1979 when NATO made its dual-track resolution decision to deploy ballistic missiles and cruise missiles while talking to the Soviets about Arms Control Agreements. (…)
Iwama: Going back to the dual-track decision of NATO of 1979, that was actually “negotiate, then build up.” Okay? They did try to negotiate for the reduction of intermediate-range missiles [first], that failed, and so American missiles were introduced into Europe. And then Gorbachev came and gradually picked up on the IMF missiles treaty. So, it’s the egg or the chicken.
Michishita: Just one thing: What really happened was buildup took place in reality, and arms control agreement followed, so…
Iwama: I totally agree. So, probably we will have to build up before real negotiations start. I totally agree. But I think there is a diplomatic and political meaning in putting negotiations on the table at the same time. So that’s why I’m calling for a dual approach from the beginning.