By Ryan Ashley*
(FPRI) — A revolution for Japanese security policy seems to be underway. With the release of its new National Security Strategy (NSS), Japan has sparked headlines claiming that the country is “abandoning pacifism” and committing to its “largest military buildup since World War II.” Certainly, the release of these strategic documents is an impactful moment, setting Tokyo on a course to dramatically increase its defense budget and capabilities, directly affecting Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and security relationships around the Indo-Pacific region.
However, do these new documents truly represent a turning point for Japanese security policies? For the past ten years, since the second administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, commentators have spoken of Japan “flexing its military muscles” and “abandoning pacifism.” To be sure, the NSS contains several groundbreaking commitments and policies. Yet, it is better understood as a culmination and formalization of long-changing processes, rather than a novel pivot in priorities. Nevertheless, across the Indo-Pacific, Tokyo is being met with a range of reactions motivated by two feuding priorities: the historical memory of Japanese atrocities during World War II and the current fear of Chinese military aggression. That Tokyo is even willing to risk such regional backlash highlights Japan’s deep commitments on defense and the US alliance, and reflects a near-unprecedented public mandate for a stronger national security.
What the Documents Say
Japan’s new defense vision is laid out in three strategic documents: a National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy (formerly known as the National Defense Program Guidelines), and the Defense Buildup Program (formerly known as the Medium-Term Defense Program). In conjunction, the documents commit Japan to gradually increase its defense spending to meet 2 percent of gross domestic product, mirroring the NATO target for defense spending. Within that vision would come 5-year investments of $7 billion in cyber warfare, $7 billion in space, and $6 billion towards a combined sixth-generation fighter aircraft development program with the United Kingdom and Italy, known as “Tempest.”
The highest profile investments in the documents are those for “counterstrike” or “counter-attack” capabilities, referring to the acquisition of long-range missiles capable of hitting ships or ground-based missiles from potentially 1,500–3,000 kilometers away. This would be a significant upgrade from Japan’s current supply of missiles, which are limited to a range of a few hundred kilometers and are predominantly designed for short-range defense. The documents correctly identify that Tokyo’s current missile arsenal and questions about the legality of so-called “left-of-launch” (striking an adversary’s missile before it can be launched itself) strikes have created gaps in Japanese deterrence. The latest documents fill those gaps by explaining the legal rationale for counterstrike capabilities, clarifying the conditions under which Japan would have the legal authority to use such capabilities, and upgrading current missile stocks to make such strikes possible. Key upgrades include plans for an indigenously produced missile and the recent move to acquire U.S.-made Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) for use on Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships. Such missiles will give Japan the technical ability to strike military targets deep inside continental Asia, such as in China, North Korea, and Russia.
Notably, these documents also highlight a new term, the importance of “Comprehensive National Power (CNP)” (総合的な国力). Richard Samuels, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that comprehensive national power refers to a combined use of diplomacy, military power, economic power, technology, and intelligence.
Diplomatically, the documents pull few punches, declaring that “Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of [World War II].” The NSS unequivocally calls China “the greatest strategic challenge” facing Japan, labels North Korea “an even more grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security than ever before,” and reiterates Tokyo’s strong stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, few countries face a harsher strategic environment than Japan, in close proximity to China, North Korea, and Russia, and perceived as a threat or adversary by the governments of all three. The new strategic documents reinforce what Japanese security experts have long argued: Tokyo is on the front lines of conflict with two adversarial nations, and at a key vulnerable flank for another.
Tokyo’s announcement garnered a wide range of reactions across the Indo-Pacific. Regional attitudes are largely split along a single debate: whether Tokyo is moving away from its “tradition of pacifism” or not. Unsurprisingly, the strongest voices against the new NSS came from North Korea and China. The Korean Central News Agency, a state broadcaster, criticized the documents by stating, “Japan has, in fact, adopted a new security strategy formulating the possession of the capability for preemptive attack on other countries, thus bringing a serious security crisis to the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.” Beijing, through the often-bellicose Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times, struck a similar tone by arguing, “Japan has a history of straying into militarism and committing aggression and crimes against humanity, which has brought disaster to the region and the world,” and is now “deviating from the track of post-war peaceful development.”
In Southeast Asia, a region most favorably disposed to Japanese economic and security relations, reactions are more mixed. For example, Thailand’s state-backed broadcaster TBS, opined the documents conveyed that “ASEAN must now learn how to live with a Japan that is getting stronger by the day,” and while Tokyo has the right to defend itself from China, it also must remain “extremely careful as, if this trend continues unabated, it could backfire and rekindle old flames.” South Korea, too, has provided a mixed reception, where editorials spoke of the NSS as a “dramatic policy change” and voiced skepticism towards Tokyo’s supposedly defensive intentions in expanding its military.
The most enthusiastic support for the strategy came from the United States. Following the release of the documents, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated: “Today, Japan has taken a bold and historic step to strengthen and defend the free and open Indo-Pacific,” and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released a statement “welcoming” the strategy. Positive reception also came from India, where former Deputy National Security Advisor SD Pradhan called the documents “a model for other nations having problems with Chinese belligerence,” and Taiwan, where President Tsai Ing-wen also “welcomed” the move.
Deciphering the New Strategies
Observers in the United States should draw three conclusions from this new NSS. First, Japan is indeed committing to its most meaningful boost in defense capabilities since the end of World War II. The three strategic documents identify and attempt to address deterrence gaps that have long plagued Japanese security. Until recently, Tokyo proved unwilling to fill these gaps themselves, preferring to depend on the United States as its security guarantor. For several reasons, including the fear of American disengagement and an increasingly harsh strategic environment, the era of dependence on the United States appears to be over. The Japanese government still wholeheartedly supports its alliance with the United States, yet is simultaneously seeking to couple that relationship with the development of indigenous capabilities. For example, just days after the release of the documents, Tokyo announced details on a set of new ballistic missile defense ships, which would provide defensive capabilities to intercept missiles launched from North Korea. Such developments should not be understood as Tokyo signaling mistrust for the alliance with the United States. Rather, Japanese leaders seek an alliance that minimizes dependence and brings in Tokyo as an equal partner.
Second, the United States should recognize Japan’s public support for the NSS as a key development. Today, Tokyo can seemingly count on a slim-but-real majority of public support in pursuing a stronger defense, a political consensus once nearly unthinkable. Several polls from Japanese news agencies demonstrate the public is increasingly willing to involve Japan in Taiwan’s defense, adopt counterstrike systems to deter North Korean missile provocations, and more generally increase defense capabilities. The reception of these documents was met with an absence of intense disapproval, a stark difference from other moments of security reform, including the 1960 “Anpo” Protests against the post-war alliance with the United States, or protests against the Abe administration’s security reforms from 2012–2015. The Japanese people now appear more willing than ever to accept their government’s long-desired boost in defensive capabilities.
Lastly, contrary to some alarmist coverage, there is no indication Japan is turning away from pacifism or rejecting its defensive security posture. Assertions to the contrary inaccurately assign motivations that are not clear in any of the documents and may inadvertently reinforce the propaganda narratives promoted by China and North Korea. Despite its tense territorial disputes with China, Korea, and Russia, Tokyo has telegraphed no ambitions to commit offensive military actions anywhere along its borders and Japan continues to self-impose limits on its Self-Defense Forces that are far more restrictive than those imposed any other defense force in the region. Even recent discussions of Japanese involvement in a Taiwan contingency are still discussed as strictly an act of collective self-defense. Rather, Japan is best understood as confronting security challenges along its entire border frontier against three considerable military powers. Tokyo, then, is making a convincing argument that effective self-defense requires greater technological and doctrinal fortitude over the coming years.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Ryan Ashley is an Air Force Intelligence Officer pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and History from George Washington University, a Master’s in Security Studies from Angelo State University, and a Master’s of Arts in Asian Studies from Georgetown University.
Source: This article was published by FPRI