Japan’s New Defense Strategy


Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan is turning a corner on its postwar identity and getting serious about defense.

Shinzo Abe’s new National Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines, and bold five-year defense plan are the strongest signs yet that Japan wishes to finally end decades of self-imposed pacifism in order to rejoin other major powers. Prime Minister Abe is taking unmistakable but measured steps to move Japan from a reactive to a proactive foreign policy, and to transform the Self-Defense Force from a complementary force-in-being to a comprehensive, operational military.

Critics and rivals have sought to characterize the plans as evidence of Japanese “remilitarization” and a threat to regional stability.  In reality, however, Japan is presenting clear, cogent and cost-effective responses to a number of pressing challenges.

The two key drivers of this policy shift are first, China’s reemergence and growing maritime assertiveness, and second, Japan’s fear of losing its postwar status as a top-tier nation.  Other concerns, such as increasing tension on the Korean peninsula, as well as doubts about U.S. commitment and staying power, are also shaping the Abe administration’s strategic calculus.  Because of what Tokyo describes as an increasingly severe security environment, Japan’s armed forces are preparing to go operational to deter China’s assertive encroachment and respond to a wide range of potential contingencies in and out of East Asia.  As the just-released National Defense Program Guidelines note “While the probability of large-scale military conflicts between major countries presumably remains low, various security challenges…are becoming more tangible and acute.”

Though Japan is acutely aware of the potential for instability emanating from nuclear North Korea, China is the single biggest influence on Tokyo’s new defense policy.  China is an economic partner throughout Asia and beyond, but Japanese security officials are focused on the near- and long-term challenges being posed by China’s reemergence, which has been militarized by policymakers in Beijing.  Japanese planners have focused on two threats: first, China’s increasingly coordinated policy of tailored coercion aimed at gaining greater authority and control over its near seas and associated airspace;  and second, the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), especially its air, naval, missile, cyberspace and outer space forces.  Together, these capabilities enhance China’s anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) potential to challenge the longstanding presumption of American forward power projection in defense of allies.

China’s special brand of gunboat diplomacy is garnering most of the attention in the Japanese Prime Minister’s office, in the new National Security Council, and at the Ministry of Defense in Ichigaya.  China is determined to deny Japan exclusive administrative control over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands to China).  Its incursions into Japanese territorial waters and the recent announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) suggest that China’s mounting economic power is leading to a gradual redefinition of its core national interests, and certainly the way by which it expresses them.  Japan sees itself as the defender of the postwar system and the rule of law, while China appears to be waging a longer-term battle to reclaim its perceived historic role as the dominant regional power.  Japan’s National Security Strategy declares that Japan must respond “firmly but in a calm manner with regard to China’s attempts to change the status quo by coercion.”  That is the right approach, but it is also a difficult balancing act to maintain over time.  This dynamic tension, and the seriousness with which Tokyo is approaching these issues, is reflected in the National Defense Program Guidelines’ inclusion of long-range response to ballistic missile attacks as a new capability for the Self-Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, Japan’s long-term dependence on the U.S. armed forces is being called into question by Chinese military modernization, particularly China’s investments in relatively low-cost diesel submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, its rapidly growing offensive cyber-warfare capacity, and the acquisition of powerful, dangerous anti-satellite weapons, among other capabilities.  These investments are designed to protect China’s chokepoints, push back U.S. carrier battle groups even further, outside of not just the first but the second island chain, and to challenge the global connectivity of America’s high-technology forces.  To the extent that the United States’ extended deterrence can be decoupled from Japan, China may be able to gain remarkable leverage over Japan and virtually every other country in the region.

Japan’s new defense plans continue the process, begun in the preceding strategic revision of 2010, to engage Chinese assertiveness on both tailored coercion and its A2AD capabilities.  Part of a comprehensive national diplomatic, economic, and military effort to help counter China’s attempts at regional coercion, the plan calls for “building a dynamic joint defense force,” superficially only a slight variation on the previous administration’s “dynamic defense” capability, but with a very consequential emphasis on jointness and operational integration between the Self-Defense Forces.  The plan will increase investment in maritime domain awareness and emphasize secure command and control.  In addition, it will increase funding for joint rapid response forces, especially focusing on units that can detect and respond to a possible attack on offshore islands in the Nansei Shoto or Southwestern Islands (also known as the Ryukyu Islands).  Layered intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is crucial to Japan’s future defense, and Tokyo is seeking to augment its ability to conduct persistent wide-area maritime surveillance with the purchase of three marinized Global Hawk-class reconnaissance UAVs.  Amphibious capabilities will be given real operational capability through the addition of more Ground Self-Defense Force troops trained as marines, as well as strengthened airlift capacity, more effective refueling for sustained operations, and the purchase of new ship-to-shore vehicles.

In order to counter China’s growing A2AD capabilities, Japan’s new defense plan looks to invest in preserving the U.S. extended deterrence and force presence, while ensuring that it has more submarines, superior fighter aircraft, and an increasing focus on much more effective and realistic joint training at U.S. bases (such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, and the continental United States).  Japan also appears serious about investing in cyber space and outer space, for both intelligence and operations.  Finally, Tokyo is focused on retaining Japan’s long-held competitive edge in high technologies critical to the long-term, which may extend to much more effective sharing of defense-relevant technology with the United States.

Shortly after his return to power last year, Prime Minister Abe announced his intention to beef up the ability of Japan’s forces to detect Chinese and other aircraft, maintain command and control, improve connectivity, and increase interoperability with United States Armed Forces.  His administration’s careful revision of the December 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines make good on that promise, authorizing several key large-scale acquisitions.  In addition to the three reconnaissance UAVs and four large early warning aircraft to supplement Japan’s current fleet of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, Tokyo will procure additional air, maritime and amphibious capabilities: four more refueling tankers to sustain operations, 28 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to ensure air superiority, 17 V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey for surveillance and mobility, and 52 amphibious vehicles to defend offshore islands.  By extending the life of existing diesel submarines, Japan plans to expand from 16 to 22 boats, and it will continue to build its small “carriers,” namely the Izumo-class (22DDH) helicopter destroyer.

Japan will continue to invest in ballistic missile defenses (including two more Aegis-equipped destroyers) to thwart any North Korean attack, while also building capacity to respond to major disasters, whether domestic or overseas.  The Abe administration no doubt wishes to use this opportunity to make a statement that it will pull its own weight in upholding and shaping the future international order.  Closer security cooperation with Australia, India, South Korea and some Southeast Asian countries and Europe also underscores Tokyo’s keen interest in reaching out to other nations to strengthen its security.  It plans to expand support for international diplomacy and peace activities, adding capabilities that can operate in support of overseas contingencies, such as more tankers and mobility forces, frontline medical capabilities and intelligence and training.

The practical and political limitations of these ambitions, however, are quickly realized when Japan reveals its relatively modest defense spending plan of about 24 trillion yen (just over US$230 billion) over the next five fiscal years beginning April 1, 2014.  Although a nearly 3 percent increase in defense spending will constitute the largest defense increase in Japan in more than two decades, it still represents less than 1 percent of Japan’s Gross Domestic Product.  Thus, even though Japan is the sixth largest military in terms of overall budget, as a percentage of GDP its defense spending is uniquely low among developed major powers.  For comparison, South Korea spends 2.8%, and China spends roughly 2%.  This discrepancy in Japanese defense spending reflects Tokyo’s continued uncertainty regarding China’s rise and how to deal with it, plus Japan’s underlying reluctance to rearm.

Japan’s clear national security strategy and the attendant defense plans are dynamic expressions of its national security policy, and they will continue to be greatly influenced by future regional developments and the enduring strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance.  They reflect Japan’s intention to maintain its status as a major power in an increasingly contested region dominated by maritime and air force modernization, backed by global systems in cyber space and outer space.  Thus, the Self-Defense Force will “place priority on ensuring maritime and air superiority, which is the prerequisite for effective deterrence and response in various disputations, including the defense posture building in the southwestern region.”

Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan will have turned a corner on its postwar identity.  As China rises, a more normal Japan is reemerging.  The latest plans call for “an exclusively national defense-oriented policy under the Constitution, not becoming a military power that poses a threat to other countries, while observing the principle of civilian control of the military and the three Non-Nuclear Principles.”

But as Japan eventually seeks to reinterpret the Constitution to lift the self-imposed ban on collective self-defense rights, the ongoing U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines review will loom even larger in importance.  A secure, well-managed alliance between Tokyo and Washington, D.C. remains the surest means of maintaining order in the Asia-Pacific.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English

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