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; the second article summarized the recent security debate in Tokyo; and this third article evaluates the country’s new security strategy.
What About South Korea and Taiwan?
What do Japan’s immediate neighbors make of the new NSS, and are they happy with a more assertive Japan? South Korea, for one, already voiced concerns that it does not view increased Japanese military capabilities as something good per se, and it opposes the inclusion in the NSS of the Takeshima Islands – called Dokdo by South Korea – which Seoul administers and claims as its inherent state territory.
Leaving the Dokdo/Takeshima issue aside, it is quite important to understand that South Korea still harbors considerable grievances and fears toward Japan. Although Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have made stellar progress in ameliorating bilateral ties, many Koreans remain skeptical when it comes to Tokyo. They look at Japan today the way many West Europeans looked at Germany in the 1970s and ‘80s; overall as a friend, but one that needs to be embedded in a joint security framework.
Hence Ju Hyung Kim, a South Korean intelligence expert argued at a recent GRIPS seminar that Seoul’s security community would only see Japanese counterstrike capabilities as something positive if they: a) are embedded in the framework of the Japan-U.S. alliance; b) come with extensive intelligence sharing; and c) include the promise that Japan would also provide logistical support to U.S. forces in case of a Korean contingency.
Kim gave an interesting example of the tactical worries Seoul has over Japan’s aspiration for independent counterstrike capabilities:
What if North Korea launches a missile against U.S. bases located in South Korea – not nuclear tipped but armed with a conventional warhead? And in that case, if South Korean and U.S. combine forces interpret that this attack is not a prelude for a follow-up massive attack, we would take a “measured response.” However, at the same time, if Japan interprets this situation that this is an existential threat for Japanese national interests, and activates collective self-defense and launches one of those hypersonic weapons and takes out North Korean launchers, North Korea would probably retaliate against South Korea because it’s doable for them and needlessly escalating the situation. Therefore, South Korea and Japan should share intelligence, and we should be on the same page, especially when we deal with hypersonic weapons.
In short, South Korean strategists worry not so much about Japan becoming a threat to them directly (as long as Japan is also bound to the alliance with the United States) but about Tokyo being a loose cannon in the delicate tactical balance between North and South Korea.
Taiwanese, on the other hand, see Japan’s capacity building more positively. Dee Wu, a Ph.D. student at GRIPS (and son of the Taiwanese foreign minister) stressed that the new NSS was a positive development since it focuses on capabilities rather than legal issues, as the 2015 re-interpretation of the constitution did. Wu said that the NSS has the potential to bring more stability to the region.
“Asia needs an Asian power with which its interests are persistently anchored in this region,” Wu said. “Although we are fortunate to have the United States as our security grantor, but the United States is a global power with diverse responsibilities. Many Asian countries, including Taiwan, remember when America strategically diverted its resources elsewhere during the Nixon shock and the War on Terror.”
Furthermore, he stressed that:
Asian countries due to their geographical proximity to China are bound to have different China policy approaches from the United States. While a mere 8.6 percent of American exports go to China, regional countries have a much higher figure: 22 percent for Japan, 25 percent for Korea, 40 percent for Taiwan, and 20 percent for ASEAN countries. This is one crucial reason, why many states in this region do not follow a fully competition-oriented economic policy towards China.
…So, if Japan can become more powerful and then more autonomous, a different trajectory for a relationship with China is possible, especially on the economic front. Assuring China that the current strategic competition is not a full-blown containment policy is an important deterrent going forward.
De-escalation of Tensions
It seems that Japan is indeed working on two fronts, trying to signal to China that it is a more reliable partner than the United States even though Tokyo goes along with Washington in its security development.
Only a month before releasing the new NSS, Kishida engaged in top-level dialogue with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which the Chinese side even hailed as having reached a “consensus on stabilizing and developing bilateral relations.” In 2023 the two have continued to signal that they want to maintain positive relations. In February, the 17th Japan-China Security Dialogue took place as planned and resulted in both China and Japan agreeing on installing a hotline for emergencies and to “continue and strengthen communications on security and defense matters.” The phone connection went online in March.
On June 3, the defense ministers of the two countries met in person on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Despite China’s strong diplomatic protests against the G-7 remarks on the country just a few weeks earlier in May, the report from the Japanese side about the meeting was rather positive: “Minister Hamada stated that it is important to have candid discussions between the Japanese and Chinese defense authorities precisely because there are many security concerns between the two countries, and Defense Minister Li expressed the same view.” They also agreed that the new hotline would be “operated appropriately and reliably and shared the view to continue promoting dialogue and exchanges.”
This is a welcome development to ASEAN countries, which are highly worried about a hot conflict between China and the United States. Singapore’s Minister of Defense, Ng Eng Hen, said at the Shangri-La Conference: “The single most important thing that Japan can do for the stability of ASEAN and Asia is to improve relations with China.”
Furthermore, Japan is also seeking to de-escalate the global arms race. It was rather astonishing that Kishida used his hosting of the G-7 meeting in Hiroshima to emphasize the importance of denuclearization. He even made sure a long passage on “Disarmament and Non-Proliferation” was included in the final outcome document.
One might be tempted to call it lip service, since Japan still refuses to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – which would have a much deeper and more direct effect on the nuclear weapons question. However, this should be seen as a typically Japanese way of striking a balance between its own interest of seeing a nuclear weapons-free world arising without jeopardizing its security relationship with the United States and the still needed nuclear umbrella of Uncle Sam. After all, better a toothless piece of paper than no piece of paper at all.
The new NSS charts new territory for Japan in its security strategy but is a less radical departure from previous policies than it is often portrayed in international media. The doubling of the defense budget over the next five years and the announced expansion of cooperation with the United States and South Korea will certainly increase the capabilities of the three allies. Yet this will take time, and the development of indigenous Japanese counterstrike capabilities will also decrease Japan’s reliance on the United States for core aspects of its self-defense. Whether this new policy will ultimately lead to a stronger and more integrated alliance with the U.S., or on the contrary, become the cornerstone for a future decoupling, remains to be seen.
Doubtlessly, the greatest threat to Japanese security is a war between China and Taiwan or North and South Korea. In both cases, even if Japan tried to remain outside the battlefield, it could be drawn into combat easily if U.S. troops on its soil were to be attacked, since that would trigger the 1960 security treaty. If the United States chooses to use its bases in Japan for military operations, Japan would almost automatically have to follow suit – or renege on the alliance. The latter is hard to imagine in the current environment. It is clear though that a war in the Pacific would be a make-or-break moment for Japan.
We are left to hope that no escalation in the Taiwan Strait or the Korean Peninsula will force Japan’s hand and that the increased security posture of Tokyo will allow the country to play a balancing role in the Pacific as a peace-minded middle power. In this regard, there is hope in the NSS, which acknowledges the need for a realistic peace in Asia: “There is a greater imperative than ever before for the international community to rally together in cooperation beyond differences in values, conflicts of interest, and others for the sake of taking on those global challenges that transcend national borders and put the very existence of humankind at risk.”
The new security strategy might increase Japan’s military power, but it is not (yet) a bellicose stance. Let’s hope it will not lead to unintended consequences in this fukuzatsu kaiki world.