Risky Business: Japan Steps Out

Background to a Changing Strategic Perspective 

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has just visited Washington, drawing attention to how Japan is remaking its national security policy. He’s winning applause from Washington and hearing anguish in Beijing. Here’s the background:

Ever since the American occupation of Japan after World War II, that country’s national security has been framed under the US umbrella. Japan’s pacifist constitution, the size and budget of its armed forces, and its security strategy were all shaped in accordance with American preferences.

The 1960 mutual defense treaty specifies US defense of Japan from attack, the right of the US to base forces in Japan, and US consultation with Japan on how American forces there will be used. Japan kept its military spending at about one percent of GNP, and officially called its military Self-Defense Forces.

Ever since the Korean War, when Japan provided logistical and supply assistance to US forces, questions have arisen about the extent of Japanese support of the US in a crisis situation that might involve war with North Korea or a direct Chinese threat to Taiwan. Washington was always pressing Japan to “do more” in the name of collective security.

Tokyo accepted that “collective security” allowed for a stronger commitment to the alliance, but typically restricted its action abroad to UN peacekeeping missions. Japan hesitated to do more so as not to become a target in a war, most likely with China.

Despite constitutional limits, Japan has one of the world’s most technologically advanced armed forces (around 261,000 troops, fifth in global ranking) and one of the world’s highest military budgets (around $54 billion, which ranks ninth). Under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Kishida’s predecessor, constitutional strictures were stretched to allow for Japanese military involvement abroad—not frontline combat, but in supportive roles, such as in Afghanistan.

Abe had also hoped to revise Article 9 of the constitution, under which Japan renounces war as an instrument of its foreign policy. He sought to revise the article to specifically allow Japan to deploy its military in combat overseas. But Abe did not succeed, though constitutional revision has always had US support.

New Threat Perceptions

Prime Minister Kishida, a former defense minister, seems to be taking advantage of Japan’s increasing vulnerability to North Korean missiles and an assertive Chinese military, especially near Taiwan, to push for all the things Abe dreamed about. The latest Japanese national security strategy paper makes the chief target clear: China, which the strategy paper says is “the greatest strategic challenge that Japan has ever faced.”

The paper calls for a doubling of Japan’s military budget over the next five years and a so-called counter-strike capability, all geared to an upgraded regional threat assessment. In practice, the new strategic perspective would allow Japan to target North Korean or Chinese bases if attacked.

In light of North Korea’s record-setting missile tests in the past year, with some missiles landing in waters near Japan, and its new doctrine of preemptive nuclear attack, Japan’s strategic change is more than theoretical.

The war in Ukraine has also shaped the new Japanese strategic perspective. The Japanese, says Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Brookings Institution, would have been taken aback had the US not stepped up in support of Ukraine.

Now, it’s Japan’s turn to step up: “Japan is choosing, not being forced by America, but is choosing to reinforce the international order that America helped to create after [World War II].”

Two other important upgrades in Japan’s security partnerships have resulted.

First, Japan has announced that, for the first time, it will have a “Reciprocal Access Agreement” with a European country, Great Britain, that will permit both to station troops on each other’s soil and carry out extensive military exercises together. Japan already has the same arrangement with Australia.

Second is improved US-Japan military coordination. As summarized by one writer: “the United States and Japan are both updating their command-and-control arrangements. Tokyo has announced that it will create a permanent joint headquarters in Japan to command the Japanese Self-Defense Forces during a crisis.”

In addition, at least one and probably more US Marine regiments will have upgraded capabilities for rapid regional deployment, a further indication that deterring China is the centerpiece of US-Japan security cooperation. No wonder Biden told Kishida: “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve been closer to Japan.”

Tokyo is now sending a message to Pyongyang and Beijing. The North Koreans’ plan for another nuclear test, or a missile launch that would carry over Japanese territory, could in theory prompt a retaliation of some sort.

That possibility might help deter the North Koreans. Beijing needs to be aware of the extent to which its military modernization, particularly in air and sea power, and its air maneuvers near Taiwan, are prompting public support in Japan for a new defense outlook focused on the China threat. (The public, however, hasn’t yet been told about tax hikes to pay for the new policy.)

Japan’s hyping of the China threat might strengthen any voices in Xi Jinping’s inner circle calling for caution on attacking Taiwan, though it will also revitalize Chinese charges of “the revival of Japanese militarism.”

Cold War Alignments

There at two important upshots of Japan’s latest national strategic thinking. It coincides with a strategic trend in Asia-Pacific toward anti-China multilateralism. Several of China’s neighbors—Japan, South Korea, Philippines, India, Vietnam, and Australia—are either US security treaty partners, members of US-backed security groups (AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), or countries that have granted access to US ships and planes.

It’s a Cold War-style lineup that China, beset with internal problems, finds threatening and is likely to respond militarily. The other and opposite implication is that neither Japan nor any of the other countries aligned with the US can be counted on to suggest or construct peaceful, stabilizing steps that will lead away from a confrontation with China.

We’re headed back toward an “either you’re for us or against us” alignment in Asia, with no middle ground—an uncomfortable strategic position that many countries in Southeast Asia have experienced before, and rebelled against. Does anyone really think Japan’s new security profile is more likely to deter rather than incite armed conflict?

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.