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Japan’s Cookie-Cutter Security Strategy

Jan 03, 2023
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

On Dec. 16, Japan released its new National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and the Defense Force Readiness Plan. The three documents represent the first time since 2013 that Japan has released new security strategies and — unsurprisingly — it followed the American-style pattern based on imaginary enemies.

The 2022 version notably positions three of its four neighbors — China, the DPRK and Russia — as threats or potential threats. China is styled as an “unprecedented strategic challenge,” the DPRK as a “more significant and urgent threat” and Russia as the “most significant and immediate threat.” Japan has only four neighbors, namely China, Russia, South Korea and North Korea. The positioning of three of these as hypothetical enemies in the country’s official documents is not only a serious matter but will also trigger an escalation of negative perceptions of each other. Ultimately, this could run counter to Japan’s desire for enhanced security and even lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The U.S. national security strategy is based on imaginary enemies, from the era of the old Soviet Union, through the failed early Cold War rogue states, terrorism in the early 21st century and now China. But history has shown that a view of security based on imaginary enemies will not bring peace and security. On the contrary, it intensifies contradictions and has brought more tension and conflict.

Second, national security based on military deterrence has gained traction, and diplomacy and dialogue as a means to achieving security seem to be marginalized. While the new version of Japan’s National Security Strategy mentions the role of diplomacy, it emphasizes the need for diplomacy backed up by military strength. In other words, in this view, diplomacy and dialogue will work only in combination with sufficient military deterrence. This logic in fact converges with the U.S. inclination that stresses military power in national security over the role of diplomacy and dialogue.

In the context of this updated strategy, the Japanese government has announced that it will spend 2 percent of GDP on defense in five years, as well as acquire “counterattack capability” to strike the missile launch sites of its rivals.

So what exactly is driving the Americanization of Japan’s national security strategy? One explanation is that it is springs from strategic pressure exerted by the United States, which has been pursuing a policy of extreme suppression and containment of China in recent years and has demanded that its allies act in lockstep. This argument is not entirely without merit. The new U.S. National Security Strategy, published by the Biden administration in October this year, positions China as the most significant geopolitical challenge and, in the U.S. National Defense Strategy, as the most serious challenge to U.S. security.

In its strategic concept published in June, NATO also mentioned China for the first time as a challenge to its interests, security and values. On this basis, Japan followed the U.S. at the strategic level — demonstrating a lack of strategic autonomy. This in turn negates the necessity for China to engage in strategic communication with Japan because the U.S. is the one calling the tune. As a result, China-Japan relations are likely to become subordinate to China-U.S. relations and Japan-U.S. relations.

There is another explanation — that all this is of Japan’s own choosing. The persistent tensions in China-U.S. relations are seen as a strategic opportunity for Japan to become a normal country, one having ample strategic autonomy. It is reported that the draft national security proposal of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in April this year included a statement that China’s military movements were a major threat to the security of the international community. This was apparently dropped later in the face of opposition from the Komeito party in the ruling coalition. Nonetheless, the episode shows that Japan’s strategic perception of China has become more negative than that of the United States and seems to be beating the drum for the U.S.

Japan’s development of a counterattack capability will essentially change Japan-U.S. dynamics in the postwar Japanese security system, as offensive military forces rely on the U.S. and defensive forces rely on Japan. Thus, Japan will become a country with both offensive and defensive capabilities.

Recently, Japan reached agreements with the United Kingdom and Italy to develop a new generation of fighter jets. This can also be seen as a departure from the postwar arrangement of relying on the U.S. for sophisticated military equipment. The shifts in policy seem to be justified by the deteriorating Indo-Pacific security environment and the U.S. quest for Japan to share the defense burden.

However, in China’s view, Japan appears to have made a strategic choice to act as the vanguard to contain China, which may deprive their relationship of momentum for fundamental improvement. Instead, the focus is solely on crisis management and arresting any further decline in bilateral ties. At the same time, despite the U.S. voicing support for Japan’s major shift in security policy, the U.S. is hardly comfortable with too much strategic autonomy for Japan.

Japan will eventually come to understand that it’s a tall order to gain strategic autonomy and elevate its status in its relationships with China and the U.S. through the Americanization of its security strategy. 

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