On 16 December 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party won 294 seats in Japan’s general election, ushering the party back into power and its leader, Abe Shinzo, back into the premiership. As he prepared to assume office, Abe declared that his government’s mission would be overcoming the crises Japan faced in its economy, its foreign policy, its education system, and in the reconstruction of earthquake-and-tsunami-stricken Tohoku.
Ten years later to the day, on Friday, 16 December 2022, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s government announced three new documents – a new National Security Strategy, Japan’s first since 2013 (eng; jp); a new National Defense Strategy, replacing the formerly named National Defense Program Guidelines (eng; jp); and a new Defense Capability Construction Plan, replacing the Mid-Term Defense Program (jp) – intended to address a worsening global crisis. As the prime minister said in his opening remarks at the press conference announcing the three documents:
I have long said that the world is at a historical crossroads. Over the past thirty years, globalization has progressed, and the world has become increasingly unified and linked. However, in recent years, due to changes in the balance of power in the international community, conflicts between countries and open competition over national interests have become more apparent, and divisions within globalization have intensified.
While Kishida’s national security documents seemingly go further than Abe ever did – the massive spending increase of ¥43 trillion ($314.5bn in current dollars) over five years outlined in these documents, the acquisition of so-called “counterattack” capabilities being the most notable additions, the description of China as the most serious challenge faced by Japan in the postwar era – the strategy outlined by the Kishida government is less a departure from Abe’s strategic vision than its fulfillment. Indeed, the new National Security Strategy may be at least as descriptive as it is prescriptive; the reality is that this is an articulation of how the Japanese government has approached national security for much of the past ten years, adapted for a new environment. Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s exercises around Taiwan, or North Korea’s ongoing missile barrages are less specific triggers for a shift by the Japanese government than events that confirmed what the late Abe and others have been saying. Japan faces a dangerous world – not least in its neighborhood – and the government needs to take national security more seriously, which means (1) doing whatever it takes to keep the U.S. engaged, (2) working closely with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, and (3) being more prepared to take responsibility for Japan’s defense.
This is not to downplay the significance of the changes in these documents. By realizing the vision articulated in the three documents, Japan might finally become a “normal nation” in terms of its ability to defend itself. But these documents are the result of a long-term process of thinking about Japan’s changing threat environment. In many ways, the descriptions of the risks facing Japan are quite similar to the 2013 National Security Strategy. To be sure, the Kishida government may not have been able to be as ambitious without the Ukraine war – given that the war produced what appears to be an enduring shift in the Japanese public’s willingness to support a stronger national defense – but the changes announced Friday are both the culmination of a long-term process of identifying the rapidly changing threat environment and articulating new ways of managing it, and the start of a long-term process of implementing changes necessary for Japan to assume greater responsibility for its own defense.
But rather than summarize the contents of new documents I want to identify some features that seemed notable to me.
Security and prosperity
First, this is a profoundly economic strategy. Japan of course has a long history of viewing national strategy through an economic prism, and the Kishida government’s National Security Strategy is no exception. The document opens with a statement about deglobalization, consistent with rhetoric that we’ve heard from Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and other senior political leaders this year.
We are reminded once again that globalization and interdependence alone cannot serve as a guarantor for peace and development across the globe.
At one point, the strategy notes that the emergence of issues like supply chain resilience, threats to critical infrastructure, and technological competition means that national security now extends to economic issues, making economic measures part of Japan’s national security policies. But when I say that this strategy is fundamentally about economics, I meant something more than what is now called “economic security.”
At its most basic, the new National Security Strategy argues that “Japan has enjoyed the fruits of peace, stability, and economic development in the international community through globalization” based on the international order maintained by Japan and its peers among the advanced industrial democracies, and that this order that has enabled Japan to prosper – and, indeed, is probably even more crucial to Japanese prosperity as its population shrinks.
But this order is now under threat from “some states not sharing universal values.”The document argues that the erosion of norms against the use of force to change the status quo, state capitalist methods of economic development and technological competition, and the blurring of the lines between war and non-war through cyber warfare, disinformation campaigns, and other attempts to manipulate or restrict access to global commons all threaten to upend the international order upon which Japan’s prosperity rests.
While the document repeatedly refers to the defense of universal values – liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law – I think the logic of this document repeatedly comes back to fundamental idea that a world of rival economic blocs, warfare (conventional, hybrid, or otherwise), weaponized interdependence, techno-nationalist competition, and the breakdown of global rule-making would leave the Japanese people poorer and more vulnerable to coercion that limits Japan’s autonomy. Japan’s dependence on imported food, energy, and raw materials – as well as, increasingly, foreign labor – mean that Japan may stand to lose more from the end of a rules-based international order than many.
Due to Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution – prohibiting the use of force for the settlement of international disputes – Japan’s security policy debates have long been predominantly legalistic, less about what risks Japan faces in the world than about what the Constitution, as interpreted by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, permits the government to do in name of national defense. The passage of the Abe government’s national security legislation in 2015, which updated Japan’s national security policies in light of the CLB’s 2014 determination that Article 9 did not in fact forbid Japan from exercising its right of collective self-defense, may have been the apotheosis of this approach to security policymaking. The months-long parliamentary battles about the legislation focused on abstract scenarios when Japan might be called to aid an ally instead of frankly debating the security environment and the capabilities needed to defend national interests.
The Kishida government’s National Security Strategy explicitly says this is not a matter for constitutional or legalistic debate. The strategy says that counterattack capabilities are permissible within the bounds of the constitution and international law, citing the government’s interpretation of 29 February 1956 that “as long as it is recognized that no other means are available to defend against attacks by guided missiles, etc., attacking missile bases is possible within the scope of self-defense in legal terms.” The non-acquisition of strike capabilities, the strategy argues, was a matter of policy, not law. It also states that any use of force would adhere to the “three conditions” enshrined in the 2015 legislation. In other words, the Kishida government is challenging critics to argue against its analysis of the international security environment instead of falling back on constitutional appeals. (Whether that effort succeeds is another matter: the Japanese Communist Party, for example, has criticized the three documents on both constitutional and national security grounds.)
The end of the beginning
Finally, it is worth stressing that as significant as the changes introduced in the three documents are, they mark the start of what could be a lengthy and complicated process of strengthening Japan’s ability to defend itself. “In the event of an invasion of Japan,” the strategy says, “Japan will assume primary responsibility for dealing with it, and, with the support of allied countries, will strengthen its defense capabilities so to be able to prevent or repel an invasion.” But achieving this goal will require a long-term sustained effort.
The National Defense Strategy outlines seven functions and capabilities that the Self-Defense Forces will need to fulfill their new missions. This list includes:
Standoff missiles, which entails not only acquiring – and eventually, producing – the missiles but also the command-and-control, intelligence-gathering, and targeting capabilities needed to use them effectively;
A unified missile defense system;
Large numbers of drones, a lesson that Japan has clearly learned from recent wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia and Ukraine;
Stronger capabilities across domains like cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum;
Better integration of command-and-control and intelligence;
More flexibility and mobility, including strengthening the SDF’s own transportation capabilities while also coordinating more effectively with the private sector;
Sustainability and toughness, referring to the SDF’s ability to stay in the fight.
This last point is perhaps the most revealing. “The current SDF sustainment capability in terms of the availability of munitions, fuel, and equipment,” the document states, “is not necessarily sufficient for the defense of Japan into the future.” Stockpiling fuel and munitions, dispersing and hardening depots, concealing command facilities: these are necessary but not necessarily glamorous measures for strengthening Japan’s ability to assume primary responsibility for its own defense.
Similarly, political leaders will have to invest more in recruitment and retention of SDF personnel, a major problem given growing labor shortages in addition to the SDF’s long-standing struggles to attract quality recruits. The NDS identifies its personnel challenges in its final pages but is short on solutions to this problem.
These issues indicate that Japan’s own “zeitenwende” is just beginning. It is not enough to announce a major increase in defense spending or bold new capabilities. Senior political leaders will have to ensure that expanded budgets are spent in ways that maximize the effectiveness of Japan’s armed forces.
These are just my preliminary thoughts on the Kishida government’s three documents. There is a lot of think about in these documents, how they came to be drafted, and how they will be implemented. I may have more to say in the coming days on the debate over how to pay for the defense spending increase and what the opposition parties are saying about the documents. But for now, it is worth appreciating that the changes announced by the Kishida government are significant but will require sustained attention by policymakers to realize effective deterrent power.
I assume that the NSS uses this formulation to add nuance to a “democracy versus authoritarianism” framing, basically acknowledging that not all authoritarians are challenging the status quo.
See the RAND Corporation’s Jeffrey Hornung on these logistical issues.
Tobias---lots to digest in this but from an economic/financial standpoint does the recent weakness of the YEN provide yet another advantage for corporate Japan in this endeavor as it onshores previous hallowed out industries.As reported in Mainichi December 1,2022 "Japan Corporate Pretax Profits Hit -July-Sept.Record ,Capex Up 9.8%
Well done Toby. Reminds me of the debate over the Abe changes -- incrementalism versus a new doctrine to replace Yoshida. The economic dimension is crucial if it really means Japanese have given up on the promise of economic integration and globalization, though I dont think that is true, yet. Your summary list of the defense policy priorities is helpful - the focus on counter strike is a bit distorting. Among other things, as you note, to actually deploy that capability requires command and control and intelligence capabilities that JSDF does not have and won't have for a very long time, if ever. In reality, to actually carry out such a strike on North Korea or China can only take place within a joint command structure with the US and American defense planners would be wary of a Japan that had independent strike capability for fear of being drawn into an unintended conflict. Is Japan ready for that kind of joint command -- it means the NATOization of our alliance, or rather the Koreanization of it. And implicitly we would need to also coordinate with South Korea which is already very nervous about Japan striking Korea. On the other hand, if you read these documents carefully (and I am only beginning to do so) it also leads to more spending on independent Japanese capability, including the new 6th generation fighter project, that suggest the Japanese are not entirely sure they can rely on the US. Last but not least, as you note, the war in Ukraine is teaching many lessons and one of the most valuable is to remind us that wars are won mainly with logistics not fighting spirit (Japanese found that out in WWII). The increase in spending should really go to the unsexy stuff - arms stockpiles, hardening targets, transport. A final footnote on spending -- the reclassification of spending to NATO standards will actually take care of about half of the targeted level, so increased spending will be much less than advertised. You have also ended on a crucial note -- there is no real discussion yet of this among the Japanese public or even in the Diet. Let's see what happens next.