Experts have even called for Japan to deepen bilateral security cooperation with India, Britain and France, countries that have shown a new resoluteness towards Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific.
Multi-polarization of the international community; increasing grey-zone situations over issues of territory and sovereignty; unilateral moves by countries in the maritime domain along with threats from cyberspace and outer space.
Looking at these issues, one would be quick to conclude that any right-minded maritime Asian power would list these as their strategic concerns in 2022. However, all these issues have been flagged by Japan since 2010.
Beijing’s military buildup and enlarging defence budget, Pyongyang’s destabilizing missile programme and the acceleration of Russian armed forces along with prospects of Sino-Russian strategic alignment have raised concerns in Tokyo for years. Under Shinzo Abe in 2013, Tokyo released its National Security Strategy (NSS) which called for Japan to overhaul its security paradigm and build a comprehensive defence architecture in the region.
The NSS emphasized strengthening the Japan-US alliance and building an integrated defence force based on an exclusive national defence policy. These Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were strengthened to prioritize ensuring maritime and air superiority and buttressing interoperability with their American partners.
However, it is worth noting that the NSS 2013 was rooted in the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, was circumspect in its military scope, and was mainly pitched towards advocating the policy of “Proactively Contributing to Peace.”
Japan's changed stance
Circumstances have changed since then and the strategic faultline in Asia has sharpened over the last decade. Beijing’s vocal ambitions and assertiveness have considerably grown after the arrival of Xi Jinping on stage. China feels that her time has come.
Reflecting on Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has categorically described it as the greatest foreign policy challenge Japan has faced since the end of the Second World War. This has triggered an intense debate in Tokyo around Japan’s own self-defence capabilities.
Until 2020, Japan was actively courting Moscow to pursue deeper economic engagement, thinking that this would ease bilateral negotiations and lead Russia to return the four southernmost Kuril Islands which have been under Russian control since the end of the Second World War. However, Moscow’s constitutional amendment to ban all territorial concessions in July 2020 left Tokyo disillusioned.
The current geopolitical dynamics have provided Prime Minister Kishida with a chance to decisively pivot away from Abe’s Russia policy and join Western allies in sanctioning Moscow and assisting Ukraine. Kishida himself described this change as “realism diplomacy for a new era.” However, Kishida seeks to build on the larger foundations laid by his predecessor who sought to reorient Japan’s defence policy along with deepening ties with Europe and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan’s tough position on Russia is also intended for an Asian audience. Tokyo seeks to warn Beijing that the use of unprovoked force in the region will be met with resistance. This is one of the primary reasons that has impelled Tokyo to join its Western partners in uniting against unilateral actions that threaten the rules-based international order.
Churns in Japanese polity
Observers note that the current crisis has served as a powerful reminder for the Japanese public that a country’s security necessitates internal action. External dependence will only go so far. This realization that peace must not be taken as unending has generated an internal churning within Japan that might soon translate into tangible defence and foreign policy manoeuvres by Tokyo.
Japanese policymakers are also keenly aware of the fact that a live European theatre will divert American attention and resources, diluting its focus from the Indo-Pacific.
Given its own history of pacifist policies, Japan is closely monitoring Germany’s moves on increased defence spending post-Ukraine. Germany was another country that adopted pacifism as a legacy of its wartime belligerence in the Second World War.
Prime Minister Kishida has further demonstrated his interest in developing sophisticated weaponry, raising the military budget to two per cent or more and reaching out to Asian and European military partners along with the US. This is a refined shift from Japan’s constitutional principle of “senshu boei” which entails exclusive self-defence.
Japan is currently revising its NSS and has a delicate task at hand. Amending Article 9 of the Constitution, which increases the room for manoeuvre of the SDF will be a key priority in this regard. Tokyo also seeks to accelerate military purchases from Washington including drones, stealth fighters and Osprey tilt-rotor utility aircraft. Japan is also building indigenous capacities for amphibious landing crafts, compact warships, helicopter carriers, satellites and submarines.
Experts have emphasized that a forward Japanese outlook on Taiwan will be a better defence for the Senkaku islands which are geographically positioned in the same string. Practitioners have also underlined the importance for Japan to maintaining the security of the First Island Chain. There is also talk about Tokyo acquiring first-strike capabilities, keeping Chinese and North Korean bases in mind, given that both Beijing and Pyongyang have such capabilities.
As far as international cooperation is concerned, Japan has gone out of its way to court Taiwan, Vietnam, and ASEAN under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Stronger cooperation under the QUAD framework could also be a direct outcome of the ongoing revision of Japan’s NSS.
Even NATO’s outlook towards China has shifted, bringing comfort to Tokyo. Experts have even called for Japan to deepen bilateral security cooperation with India, Britain and France, countries that have shown a new resoluteness towards Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific.
Given Japanese history with complicated notions of aversion to outright military power, premised on the fabric of pacifism, one needs to keep in mind that drastic defence changes are easier said than done.
For now, internal churning has begun in Tokyo. It will have significant strategic implications for Asia.
(The writer is Research Intern at the Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)