Late in 2022, Japan's ruling government, led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, endorsed the makings of a pioneering national security policy. It is one that aligns with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal to amend Japan's postwar Constitution, which renounces "the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes" (Article 9). As part of the transition to such a grand vision, on December 16, 2022, the Kishida Cabinet released three defense documents, namely the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program.
These will determine Japan's national security trajectory for at least the next ten years.
Considering the main debate internationally has centered around Tokyo abdicating its pacifist path, will the new NSS be a game changer in terms of deterring the growing (triple) threat in Northeast Asia?
What do the responses of the United States, Russia, China, and North Korea entail? Will Japan's new-found audacity serve its national and regional security interests?
Inside the New National Security Strategy
The revised NSS will enable Japan's Self-Defense Force (SDF) to upgrade its defense capabilities by acquiring the so-called "stand-off missiles" in order to attack enemies from safer combat zones. It will also gain "counterstrike capabilities" to target enemy bases in the context of a missile defense system. The SDF shall improve its defense capabilities not only in the previous land, sea, and air domains, but also in the new strategic domains. Namely, those are space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum.
The new defense policy may be regarded as a pit stop in what Andrew L Oros has labeled as Japan's decade-long "security renaissance," which has recognized the need for a strategically autonomous, bold posture in the new emerging threat environment.
This thrust began with Japan's first NSS that was approved by the Abe administration in December 2013. The latest NSS adopts the so-called "proactive contribution to peace" just like the previous one. And in this sense, its fundamental trajectory is consistent with the NSS based on the Abe Doctrine.
Concurrently, Japan's new NSS is also considered to be "transformational" in two major aspects. First, it justifies doubling Japan's defense budget, which is about 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in fiscal year 2027. That puts it on a level on par with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standard.
However, the source of revenue has generated controversy. For example, in a survey in December 2022, about 64 percent of the Japanese public disapproved of the recent plan to raise taxes to finance the nation's increased defense spending. This along with the government's falling public ratings will strain Kishida's leadership.
Second, it legitimizes the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities (senshu bōei) under the conventional self-defense oriented policy. To this end, the Japanese government aims to purchase the US-made Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles before ultimately extending the range of indigenous cruise missiles in the near future.
In addition to the purchase of the US-made Tomahawk, the Japanese government has pursued and developed counterstrike capabilities, also known as the "Japanese Tomahawk," that can target enemy bases of North Korea and China.
China, North Korea React to National Security Strategy
Given that the new security policy calls out China, North Korea, and Russia as threatening the regional and global order, the three authoritarian states have unreservedly criticized the "militarization" of Japan.
However, it is China whose military activities in the neighborhood have elicited maximum fear in Japan. That includes China's behavior in the Senkaku Islands and the Taiwan Strait, and its growing hostility with the United States and allies.
Understandably, the 2022 NSS officially describes China as "an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge" for the peace and security of Japan, as well as the international community. In contrast, the 2013 NSS referred to China as "an issue of concern," a rather mild description. China has in turn firmly opposed its newly minted descriptor. And it has condemned the NSS as a "wrongful path of militarism" that will stoke regional tensions.
In the same vein, Pyongyang too has criticized the NSS, although the language used is much sharper. It calls Japan a "war criminal state" in view of the alleged Japanese wartime atrocities in Korea (and China). North Korea has also warned of "bold and decisive" military measures against Japan's military buildup.
Change in Russia's Outlook
Notably, Russia – outlined as the cooperation partner in 2013 – was mentioned in the new strategy 16 times as a serious violator of international order for its war in Eastern Europe and the activities in Northern Territories. It was further mentioned as a "strong security concern" over its strategic coordination with China.
Russia, like North Korea, has condemned Japan by invoking the past and warning against Tokyo's "military potential enabling it to deliver strikes on neighboring countries."
All three states also now recognize Japan as an unimpeachable partner of the West, which has fueled further tensions. Moreover, these hostile responses have undeniably reasserted Japan's need for the change in defense policy direction.
On the other hand, the NSS that aims to strengthen "like-minded" partnerships with the United States, Australia, India, and European countries, among others, will find resonance in the Indo-Pacific. This will be so even amid reservations vis-à-vis the strategy document's anti-China tilt.
Unsurprisingly, its strongest support has come from the treaty ally United States, which has welcomed Japan's new defense documents for invigorating both the Japan-US military alliance and the defense cooperation with other partner countries in the Indo-Pacific.
Reconfiguring Defense: Just Short of Revolutionary?
Commentators have observed that the new NSS is based on "pragmatic realism." It comes in the context of China's increasingly growing military power, North Korean nuclear and missile threats, as well as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.
Undoubtedly, the new NSS could be regarded as a "clear migration away from the Yoshida Doctrine" that shaped the trajectory of Japan's postwar defense policy. That doctrine was based on pacifism stemming from Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. However, that shift does not mean that Japan would carry out the so-called "preemptive strike" in violation of international law.
In this sense, it is critical to note that the new NSS is still within the framework of Article 9. As has been pointed out, Japan's new NSS has been created for "defense" and not for "offense." It emphasizes that "war potential" is beyond the scope of Japan's national defense in the current Japanese Constitution.
A Slow Evolution
In other words, Japan possessing long-range strike capabilities for deterrence purposes cannot be interpreted as "war potential." Hence, the new NSS conforms to the framework of the current Japanese Constitution.
The application of Japan's counterstrike capabilities could be based on the "Three New Conditions for Use of Force" defined in the Peace and Security Legislation enacted in 2015. Crucially, the use of counterstrike capabilities is consistent with the official view of the Hatoyama administration in 1956, which stated:
As long as it is deemed that there are no other means to defend against attack by guided missiles and others, to hit the bases of those guided missiles and others is legally within the purview of self-defense and thus permissible.
In a nutshell, the revision of Article 9 is still a long way off. At present, Japan has to be content with moving toward normalizing its defense capabilities through the creation and implementation of this NSS in the near future. Thus, Japan's new NSS is an "evolutionary" (and transformational) national security strategy. But it is not "revolutionary" at this stage.
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Dr Panda is pleased to invite Dr Daisuke Akimoto to join him in this installment of his column. Find Dr Panda’s column [Asia’s Next Page] on JAPAN Forward.