8 February 2023
The View from Japan
Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), released in December, is a groundbreaking document that sets out plans to strengthen not only defence capabilities, but also diplomatic, economic, technological and intelligence capabilities. It aims at enabling Japan to create a new balance in the Indo-Pacific – a project likely to require crucial support from Australia, whose regional goals resemble Japan’s, perhaps more closely than any other country.
Recognising that Japan’s security environment is “as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of World War II”, the NSS, and the National Defense Strategy prepared under the NSS, break down previous taboos that have constrained Japan’s security policies. New initiatives include the acquisition of a counterattack capability, active cyber defence and the goal of achieving 2 per cent of GDP in defence-related expenditures.
If these policies are realised, Japan’s security will eventually shift to a new phase by completely breaking away from its postwar strategy, known as the “Yoshida Doctrine”. Under the Yoshida Doctrine, Japan kept a low-profile security posture and stayed away from traditional great-power politics, while heavily relying on the US security umbrella and prioritising economic activities.
The new NSS also declared that Japan will “join together with its ally [the US], like-minded countries and others to achieve a new balance in international relations, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.” Japan has been focusing on this goal in recent years. In response to the realities of China’s rise and the relative decline of the United States, Japan has diversified its security partnerships not only with regional partners, such as Australia and India, but with extra-regional countries, including the United Kingdom, France and NATO.
Japan has also pushed the quadrilateral security cooperation with the United States, Australia and India, while seeking the possibility of engaging with the AUKUS security partnership. At the same time, the NSS repeatedly stresses the need for “coexistence and coprosperity” in the international community through the maintenance and reinforcement of an open and stable economic order and the promotion of multilateral cooperation.
While naming China as Japan’s “greatest strategic challenge”, the NSS sets the goal of building a “constructive and stable relationship” with China, and of working with allies and like-minded countries to ensure China plays a “responsible” part in the international community.
In short, the new NSS distances itself from a containment posture and assumes that China is still capable of “constructive cooperation in international arms control, disarmament, and other efforts”.
Creating a new balance is crucial in this respect. As the “Thucydides Trap” theory suggests, a military conflict between the United States and China will become more likely as the gap between the established power and the revisionist power narrows. By strengthening relationships with like-minded partners, as well as building its defence capabilities, Japan tries to create an environment in which any attempt to change the status quo by force does not eventually pay off. This will, hopefully, influence China’s strategic calculations and encourage it to act as a constructive player in the international community.
Australia is perhaps the country that most comfortably shares Japan’s vision for the formation of such a regional order. Although Canberra’s relations with Beijing rapidly deteriorated after the outbreak of Covid-19, their economic relations have continued to grow. While India’s position in the Quad is not necessarily settled, Japan increasingly relies on Australia as an important partner to achieve common strategic goals, as well as a reliable provider of energy resources.
Defence cooperation with Australia has become closer to that of an alliance, especially as Japan needs to be prepared for higher-end contingencies, not just those in the grey zone. The conclusion of the reciprocal access agreement, the announcement of the new security declaration promising the two countries will consult on responses to regional contingencies, and Japan’s rotational deployment of F-35s to the Northern Territory are all part of a long-term alliance-building process.
Australia is also an important partner in Japan’s enhanced engagement in the region. Japan’s increased ties with Pacific island countries in recent years shows that it is prepared to not only contribute to its own defence, but also to maintain order in the region, even as tensions rise in Northeast Asia.
Of course, there are many challenges in achieving this goal. The financial resources available to increase Japan’s defence spending – and then maintain that spending – are still unclear. Japan also needs to eliminate irrational regulations or restrictions in order to strengthen cooperation, including defence, with other countries. As the NSS emphasises, it is also important to fundamentally enhance economic and industrial capabilities, which will take time.
Above all, the Japanese government needs to forge a national consensus on the formation of a new balance in the Indo-Pacific region and Japan’s role as part of that equilibrium. The new NSS should be seen as the first step towards this effort.
Tomohiko Satake is a senior research fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS). Views expressed here are not official positions of NIDS or the Ministry of Defense, Japan.