Japan’s Role in Advancing a Networked Regional Security Architecture

This commentary is part of the Exploring New Horizons: Japan’s Defense Priorities project, a CSIS Japan Chair initiative featuring analysis by leading Japanese and American scholars examining the implications of Japan’s new national security and defense strategies and opportunities for bilateral cooperation.

Japan’s recent release of its National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS)—along with its announcement to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027—heralds a new era of defense prioritization for Tokyo. A reflection of its growing concern about the evolving security landscape in the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s new defense policies will allow it to contribute to a networked security architecture that will enhance deterrence and help maintain a peaceful, ruled-based order in the Indo-Pacific. 

In its new security documents, Japan is clear about the need to protect Taiwan from intensifying military intimidation and coercion. The NSS says Japan will “prevent the emergence of a situation in which any one state can unilaterally change the status quo,” while the NDS highlights the five ballistic missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone on August 4, 2022, during China’s four-day military exercises in the Taiwan Strait following former U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This situation brought home to Japan that China’s intensifying coercive military activities against Taiwan will directly impact Japan’s own security. The NSS asserts that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is indispensable to international peace and security, connecting the future of Taiwan directly with global stability.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further raised alarm bells about similar aggression happening in the Indo-Pacific region and has motivated Japan to take a more proactive role in building up its own defenses and working more closely with other nations to deter aggression. The bold steps Tokyo is taking include developing counterstrike capabilities to protect Japan from the growing threat of missile attacks, including from North Korea, and purchasing 400 Tomahawk missiles from the United States. With an eye toward Russia’s accelerating military activities near Japan and its strengthening of its military forces near the Northern Territories, as well as increasing military coordination between Russia and China in the form of joint exercises, joint navigation of naval vessels, and joint bomber flights near Japan, Tokyo has committed to increasing security cooperation with other nations and groups, namely Australia, India, the Quad, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Japan’s Enhancing of Regional Defense Relationships

Japan’s recent interactions with Australia, India, the Quad, the Philippines, and South Korea demonstrate its determination to contribute to building a multinational security network that will serve as a bulwark against maritime and territorial aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. The flurry of meetings and agreements made during the last year with these nations is breathtaking and a testament to Japan’s increasing concern over the deteriorating global security environment. 

  • Australia: At 2+2 talks held in early December 2022, Australia and Japan’s defense and foreign ministers agreed to step up military cooperation and enhance interoperability of their forces, including exploring conducting bilateral submarine search and rescue training and expanding air-to-air refueling operations. They also agreed to increase rotational deployments of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to Australia, including the possibility of deploying Japanese F-35 fighters to Australia on a rotational basis. This followed the two nations’ signing of a new joint security declaration for responding to military contingencies in October 2022 and a Reciprocal Access Agreement to allow their militaries to train on each other’s territories in January 2022. Ratified by the Japanese parliament in April, the Reciprocal Access Agreement sets rules for transportation of personnel, weapons, and supplies and will facilitate faster deployment of forces during joint drills and disaster relief operations between the two countries.
  • India: Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio visited India from March 20 to 21, 2023, in a quickly planned visit that seemed primarily aimed at demonstrating Japan’s regret that Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa had skipped the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in New Delhi in early March. During his visit, Kishida provided a public speech in which he called India “indispensable” in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan and India also held 2+2 talks between their foreign and defense ministers in September 2022, announcing a new joint fighter aircraft exercise and agreeing to enhance multination maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. As with the United States, while Indian neutrality over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proved to be an irritant in India-Japan relations, it has not resulted in serious obstacles to their growing ties, and the defense relationship has been no exception.
  • The Quad: It was the late Abe Shinzo who, in 2007, recognized India’s critical role in preserving a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region and developed the notion of a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.” Abe had been convinced that India, as a maritime power and democracy, had an integral role to play in shaping the “Indo-Pacific”—a phrase he himself coined in a speech to the Indian parliament in 2007. The first-ever official security consultation among the four nations was held in May 2007; however, China’s negative reaction to the gathering and changes in political leadership in Australia and Japan later that same year contributed to the rapid demise of the Quad. A decade later, during the Trump administration, the Quad was revived and became an integral part of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework, which was signed by former president Trump in February 2018 and drove U.S. strategy in the region for the rest of his term. The Biden administration has elevated the Quad and held five Quad summits since March 2021.

    While the Quad focuses on economic, technology, public health, and climate cooperation and downplays the idea of defense cooperation, it serves a strategic purpose in that it is helping to shape the future order of the Indo-Pacific. In May 2022, the Quad launched a major maritime security cooperation arrangement called the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative, which aims to build a common operating picture among Indo-Pacific nations regarding activities in their seaways so that they can better protect their own sovereignty. The program is providing satellite-based radio frequency data to nations in the region to improve their ability to counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; respond to natural disasters; and improve law enforcement near their shores.

    Moreover, the four countries now regularly participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise, which will occur off the coast of Australia in August. India had not invited Australia to the Malabar exercise for over a decade to avoid antagonizing China—that was until China’s massive military buildup along the disputed India-China border in the spring of 2020, which led to the first deadly clash along the border since 1975. The border clash probably led India to believe that seeking to placate China by avoiding defense cooperation with like-minded partners had not resulted in its desired objective; it was time to adopt a different strategy.
  • The Philippines: Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited Japan in February 2023 and agreed to enhance defense ties, including Japanese troop participation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) training exercises in the Philippines, expanding transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology to the Philippines, and strengthening trilateral cooperation between Japan, the Philippines, and the United States. The army chiefs of the three nations recently held a trilateral meeting, and Japan in late March joined a major joint exercise between the U.S. and Philippine armies. In early June, the Coast Guards of the three countries held their first joint exercise near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China effectively captured over a decade ago. The conclusion of the HADR training exercises agreement may lead to the signing of a visiting forces agreement, something that could allow for Japanese forces to be deployed in the Philippines. In yet another sign of the deepening Japan-Philippines defense relationship, Japan landed two F-15 fighter jets, a refueling aircraft, and a transport plane at Clark Air Base in the northern Philippines in December 2022. This progress follows milestones in the U.S.-Philippines relationship, including an agreement providing the United States access to four additional military bases in the Philippines for logistics support and prepositioning of military stocks.
  • South Korea: Trilateral cooperation between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo has improved markedly since South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol came to power last year and due to North Korea’s intensifying missile tests. In February 2023, the three nations held ballistic missile defense exercises, while the three navies staged trilateral anti-submarine exercises in September 2022. Washington indicated that the naval exercises would “improve tactical and technical cooperation among the three navies.”

    Sustaining progress on trilateral defense cooperation may be susceptible, however, to public opinion in Seoul and Tokyo, given their historical disputes and lingering differences over how to manage them. President Yoon has taken steps to improve relations with Japan, such as his government’s recent decision to establish a foundation to pay victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonization of South Korea. In 2018, under President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, the South Korean supreme court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to the Korean victims of forced labor. President Yoon’s proposal to have a Korean-funded foundation pay the compensation, rather than Japanese companies, shows a good faith effort to improve ties.

Turning Tactical Progress into a Coherent Strategy

The recent forward movement on Japan’s multiple bilateral and trilateral defense relationships demands careful consideration about how to combine or coordinate the various activities and agreements to achieve a coherent and credible multination strategy of deterrence. The challenge lies in finding the balance between an overly structured framework that would restrict participation by countries seeking to avoid getting caught between Washington and Beijing and a disorganized and disparate set of actions that fail to reinforce each other or provide an overall credible deterrent. It will also be important to balance the need for maintaining momentum with not overstretching forces, budgets, and resources.

There should be a guiding vision for the various defense and security activities and minilateral groupings to achieve the desired objective. Some policy recommendations include:

  • Coordinate on strategic messaging. The United States and Japan should ensure that any time they issue joint statements on matters relating to Indo-Pacific security with other nations or within a minilateral group that the language is consistent across the statements. If similar themes are raised and the language is consistent among different Indo-Pacific nations, it will send a strong signal of coordination, unity, and strength to adversaries seeking to drive wedges between nations with the goal of weakening the rules-based order and international norms.  
  • Focus on maritime security initiatives. One area that is ripe for Japan to help shape a networked security architecture is through maritime security cooperation and mechanisms that enhance maritime domain awareness among like-minded partners. As a maritime nation, Japan is dependent on free and open seaways to ensure trade routes remain fully accessible, safe, free from piracy, and unimpeded by the aggressive maritime activities of other nations. In Japan’s NSS and NDS, it commits to shaping a security environment that is intolerant of unilateral changes to the maritime status quo. Japan is committed to enhancing maritime surveillance, exercising with other countries, and conducting more overseas port calls. The Quad Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative is a positive start, but making it into a “Quad-Plus” initiative that includes South Korea as a leader could help to strengthen and sustain it. Another aspect of building maritime security is closer coast guard cooperation among the six nations—the four Quad nations, South Korea, and the Philippines—to address nontraditional maritime security threats such as protecting marine research activities and addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
  • Strengthen U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral cooperation, building on recent progress through their respective bilateral relationships. Japan and the United States should support the Philippines’ defense modernization efforts, infrastructure development, and capacity building and increase the tempo of their joint training exercises. Tokyo and Washington should also provide the Philippines with the capabilities it requires to stand up to Chinese maritime aggression in the South China Sea. Lastly, the three countries should begin trilateral discussions on potential Taiwan contingencies to enhance common understanding of the threat and of expectations in the event of crisis or conflict.
  • Boost trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation. Given the escalating threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from North Korea and the current South Korean government’s interest in boosting ties to Japan, the three countries should take advantage of the opportunity to put in place mechanisms of trilateral cooperation that will enhance deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. While the benefits of U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation to counter the North Korean WMD threat are obvious, the trilateral relationship can also be leveraged to address Chinese gray zone activities and the growing China-Russia military nexus in the region as well as to prepare for other regional military contingencies.
  • Gradually increase defense-related Quad activities. While it is important to demonstrate to Southeast Asian nations that the Quad will not contribute to increasing military tensions in the region, the Quad should also be prepared to cooperate more closely on defense and security issues, should the need arise. The Quad could quietly begin diplomatic discussions on regional contingencies and crisis management. Another way to build trust and confidence on defense and security issues among the Quad nations without raising eyebrows could be to invite India to attend the trilateral defense ministerial dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Australia as an observer.

Networked Deterrence Is about Preventing Aggression

The United States will continue to lead efforts to create a regional security architecture that supports a free and open, rules-based Indo-Pacific order. However, there is growing recognition that U.S. allies and partners need to strengthen defense ties to one another. Japan is taking significant steps in this direction, which is welcome. The regional security architecture is shifting from the traditional hub and spoke model to one based on a latticework of overlapping relationships that are driving toward a single vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The concept of networked security is likely to be more successful in achieving integrated regional deterrence than if the United States were to pursue a more formal and structured arrangement. Many Indo-Pacific nations are wary that a new Cold War is setting in between Washington and Beijing, and they want to avoid getting caught in the middle. A more open and fluid set of minilateral arrangements that drives the overarching objective of protecting a rules-based system will likely be more effective and sustainable over the long term in deterring aggression and minimizing disruptions to the global order. In the end, networked deterrence is not about militarization; it is about being prepared and preventing aggression and conflict.

Lisa Curtis is a senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security in Washington, D.C.

This project is made possible with support from the Government of Japan.

Lisa Curtis

Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program, the Center for New American Security