Japan’s Transformational National Security Strategy

Later this month Japan will announce new national security and defense strategies that will shatter policy norms in place for much of the period since World War II. Tokyo is poised to unveil plans to nearly double defense spending over the next five years, discarding the informal 1 percent of GDP cap that has been in place since 1976. It will set out plans to acquire long-range precision-strike cruise missiles, capable of hitting targets well inside North Korean or Chinese territory, loosening the postwar constraint on military power projection. And it may signal intent to remove much of the remaining limits on defense equipment exports, first adopted in 1967 and loosened in 2014, but to little effect. This package, if implemented, will break with a tradition of incremental change in Japanese defense policies that is rooted in Article 9 of the constitution—and ultimately transform Japan’s defense posture and the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Driving this change is a regional security environment that Japanese officials describe as the most challenging since the U.S. occupation. China is undertaking a sweeping military modernization program and increasing maritime pressure on Japan in the East China Sea, with a near-constant presence of China Coast Guard vessels in waters around the Senkaku Islands; its military exercises around Taiwan in August, which included ballistic missiles launches that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, underscored that a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would directly impact Japanese security. North Korea continues to advance nuclear weapons and missile programs, and in October, launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile that overflew Japan. Finally, after Tokyo joined the G7 in imposing sanctions on Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia labeled Japan an “unfriendly” country and increased military activity near Japan.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in particular has been an accelerant of change. Japanese officials watched as NATO support for Kyiv increased after it demonstrated a will to fight in the face of impossible odds. They concluded that by ensuring the capacity to better defend Japan, the United States and other partners will be more likely to come to their aid in a crisis. As a panel of experts advising Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on defense strategy wrote in November, “demonstrating . . . that we will defend our country ourselves is essential to maintaining the unwavering confidence of allies and likeminded partners,” (author’s translation).

The Japanese public appears to agree, and there is strong popular support for plans to increase the defense budget and to acquire strike capability—also a departure from the past that reflects perceptions of Japan’s challenging neighborhood. When former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2015 pushed legislation through the Diet that expanded roles and missions for the Self-Defense Forces, including for the first time allowing it to come to the aid of a close ally under attack, there were by citizens concerned that the new law was at odds with the constitution and would put the country on a path to war. There has been no such reaction to the policy changes set to be announced this month. 

When the Kishida government releases the strategies, several issues bear close attention.

The Key Challenge: China

The National Security Strategy (NSS) had a nuanced description of the security challenges confronting Japan, noting that a “shift in the balance of power . . . has substantially influenced the dynamics of international politics.” It identified North Korea first on Japan’s list of concerns in the region. Against the backdrop of growing friction over the Senkaku Islands, the 2013 strategy described China’s actions as “an issue of concern to the international community including Japan” as “an issue of concern to the international community including Japan.”

Japan’s new NSS is likely to list China first among the challenges Japan faces, ahead of North Korea and Russia; it will likely for the first time make explicit Japan’s interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and its opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo. But the strategy is unlikely to describe China as a threat. The Kishida government has set out a policy approach that seeks a “constructive and stable” relationship with Beijing, one that combines steps to strengthen deterrence with support for close economic ties—a fact that reflects China’s status as Japan’s largest trading partner. Kishida’s meeting with Xi Jinping last month in Bangkok resulted in provisional agreement to resume high-level bilateral economic talks, a manifestation of this approach. The threats posed by North Korea and Russia to Japan will also feature in the National Security Strategy, but for the first time China will likely be the focal point.

Also of interest will be the language Japan uses to describe relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK). The NSS, released at a time of relatively warm relations between Tokyo and Seoul, described the ROK as “a neighboring country of the utmost geopolitical importance for the security of Japan. . . . Japan will construct future-oriented and multilayered relations and strengthen the foundation for security cooperation with the ROK.” A decade later, ties between the two are on shakier ground, but the geopolitical imperative of closer ties remains—and since the inauguration of South Korean president Yoon Seok Yeol in May, the Biden administration has pushed an aggressive trilateral agenda.

Defense Budget

Japan is poised to undertake increases in defense spending that are unprecedented in the postwar period. Through a combination of growth in core defense spending and other “national security-related” investments, the new strategy is likely to establish a budget trajectory that will approach 2 percent of GDP by the end of the five-year plan—from about 5 trillion yen ($37 billion in today’s exchange rates) in this fiscal year to as much as 11 trillion yen ($81.5 billion) by Japanese Fiscal Year (JFY) 2027. Press reports indicate that the core defense budget could total about 43 trillion yen over five years—an increase of more than 50 percent over the current plan. Other categories of spending—such as the Coast Guard, some civilian research and development, and public infrastructure—are likely to be included in the total calculation, as part of a new “comprehensive defense structure” that reflects non-defense investments with national security implications. An intense internal debate over how to pay for these increases continues within the coalition, and the outcome is likely to be a combination of tax hikes, cuts to other government outlays, and issuance of government debt.

By any measure, the coming growth in Japanese defense spending is significant, but clear prioritization will be critical to ensuring investments that strengthen Japan’s capabilities and the alliance. The Defense Ministry’s budget request in August identified seven priority areas for additional funding—but together they are sweeping in scope, encompassing counterstrike capabilities, uncrewed systems, integrated air and missile defense, space and cyber capabilities, mobility and lift, and a catch-all resilience category that includes everything from munitions stockpiles to readiness and maintenance. Even with additional resources, this swath of requirements risks stretching the budget thin. In the near term, resilience is particularly important for strengthening Japan’s defenses—the SDF historically has been plagued by insufficient stocks of munitions and poor levels of readiness. Significant investments here would represent an immediate down payment on Japan’s commitment to strengthening deterrence.

Counterstrike

With the Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito in apparent agreement on Japan’s need for “counterstrike” capability, the strategies will reflect a decision to move forward on this pathbreaking acquisition. Since the end of World War II, Japan has eschewed power projection capabilities, such as long-range missiles, aircraft carriers, or strategic bombers—a postwar strategy, linked to Article 9, known as exclusive self-defense (senshu bōei). Although the Japanese government asserts that the senshu bōei framework remains in place, long range cruise missiles represent a threshold capability that will fundamentally change Japan’s approach to deterrence. 

In the 2018 defense strategy, Japan first decided to acquire “standoff” capabilities in the form ofanti-ship missiles to strike an adversary’s forces “attempting to invade Japan.” Japanese security planners have since concluded that such capabilities are insufficient, and that Japan needs the ability to target fixed military facilities deep within an adversary’s territory. Over the long term, Japan intends to extend the range of an indigenous ground-launched cruise missile to as much as 1,500 kilometers, and to develop air-, sea-, and submarine-launched launched variants. This process likely will extend into the 2030s, however; as an interim measure, Japan is therefore considering a request to purchase U.S.-made Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (with a range of more than 1,600 kilometers) with the goal of deploying the capability before 2027. The prospect of a Japan that can strike back in response to an attack, at long range and on its own, would represent a significant new variable for potential adversaries in Pyongyang and Beijing, and one that would help to reinforce deterrence. It would also send a powerful signal about Japan’s status as a U.S. ally—today only the United Kingdom possesses the Tomahawk, although Australia has also announced the intent to acquire the capability.

An effective Japanese counterstrike capability would set the stage for a far deeper level of command-and-control integration with the United States than exists today. Regardless of the system Japan acquires, it will have to rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and targeting support as it develops the capability. Any scenario in which Japan is launching long-range cruise missiles at targets in China or North Korea would almost certainly coincide with U.S. military action; the allies therefore will need to develop an integrated process for target identification, prioritization, and deconfliction to maximize the effectiveness of U.S. and Japanese strike operations. This capacity does not exist today. With the counterstrike decision in place, reimagining U.S.-Japan command and control would represent the next opportunity to deepen the alliance.

Strengthening Japan’s Defense-Industrial Base and Cybersecurity

Both the national security and defense strategies are likely to include an emphasis on strengthening cybersecurity to protect Japanese government networks as well as critical infrastructure. New initiatives are likely to include efforts to strengthen the authorities of the National center of Incident readiness and Strategy For Cybersecurity (NISC), which today nominally sets cybersecurity standards and oversees incident response—or the creation of an entirely new organization, to better integrate cyber defense capabilities in the Defense Ministry and National Police Agency. The Ministry of Defense reportedly is planning to increase personnel responsible for cyber defense by a factor of five to around 4,000 personnel, from just over 800 todayby 2027. A focus in Japan on strengthening cybersecurity will be welcome in the U.S. government; weak cybersecurity practices across the Japanese government have been a critical impediment to deeper alliance cooperation and expanded information-sharing.

Finally, the defense strategy will also place a heavy emphasis on strengthening Japan’s defense-industrial base. Despite steps to loosen restrictions on defense equipment exports under Abe, Japan’s defense industry is largely uncompetitive internationally, and remains focused on the small domestic market. A recent exodus of second- and third-tier suppliers from the sector has further alarmed Japanese leaders. The defense strategy is therefore likely to advance a number of steps to strengthen the industry, including increased funding for research and development; further loosening of export rules, in particular to allow more flexibility for transfers to countries that could be parties to a conflict (current rules make it difficult for Japan to provide equipment to Ukraine, for example); and exploring new institutions, perhaps modeled on the Innovation Unit, to support and capture emerging dual-use high technologies. This is an urgent area for the Japanese government—but also a challenging one to address, given the existing structure of Japan’s industry, in which defense is a small side business for even the largest firms. The imminent announcement of a partnership among Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy to develop a common fighter aircraft will signal Tokyo’s intent to move toward a codevelopment and co-acquisition model that diverges from the past practice. will signal Tokyo’s intent to move toward a codevelopment and co-acquisition model that diverges from the past practice.

The Kishida government’s new national security strategy represents an inflection point—one that sets in motion a material transformation in Japan’s defense posture that builds upon the policy and legal reforms that Abe put in place. These changes were unimaginable only a few years ago and represent a vast opportunity for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Christopher B. Johnstone is the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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