Japan’s Security Outlook: Moving beyond thinking to doing

By Nobushige Takamizawa, Visiting Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy – University of Tokyo

In 2022, Japan and China mark 50 years since diplomatic 'normalisation'. Nobushige Takamizawa writes the milestone comes amid a growing array of regional security challenges that require Tokyo to re-examine potential threats from conflict over Taiwan to cyber attacks and act urgently to strengthen its capacity to respond.

The general election in October 2021 gave an absolute stable majority” of 261 seats out of 465 in the
Lower House, to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who won the LDP Presidential election just a month before. This ensured that the LDP continued to have the authority to chair all standing committees and allow ruling coalition lawmakers to make up the majority
of the members on those committees. Left leaning opposition groups, namely the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japan Communist Party (JCP) lost more than 10 percent of their seats in spite of their “candidate unifying cooperation” against the LDP.

What was particularly notable in this election was the remarkable rise of right-leaning as well as reform-promoting Nippon Ishin no Kai as a “third pole,” gaining 41 seats and surpassing the LDP coalition partner Komeito with 32 seats. There is an expectation that this emerging new political dynamic may help Japan to take action more quickly and decisively in dealing with a variety of intensifying security challenges. This will strengthen the LDP’s capacity to promote more robust security policy measures unless it loses support in the Upper House election in July 2022.

Just after becoming Japan’s 100th Prime Minister in September 2021, Kishida articulated his intention to review the 2013 National Security Strategy (NSS), the 2018 National Defence Programs Guidelines
(NDPG) and the 2018 Mid-term (FY 2019-2023) Defence Plan. These policy documents address a range
of fundamental and urgent security issues: Rejuvenating the Japan-US alliance, strengthening deterrence, dealing with China and the Taiwan issue in its all aspects, calibrating and building up Japan’s force structure, exploring and implementing measures of active defence, ensuring climate security, economic security, and health security as well as reliable global supply chains. On top of that, major challenges loom in the integration of overlapping diplomatic and security initiatives such as FOIP, Quad, AUKUS, and the Democratic Alliance as well as at the nexus of trade and economic deals such as CPTPP, RCEP, BRI and other bilateral or multilateral arrangements.

Since President Biden took office in January 2021, major efforts have been made to reaffirm the importance of the rules-based international order and to revitalise cooperation among allies and other like-minded countries and partners. Japanese policy makers were cautious but relieved to see the US resolve to re-engage strongly with Asia. The Biden administration used a variety of opportunities to convey this intent, including the US National Strategic Planning Guidance, two Quad Summit meetings, the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting in Tokyo and the Suga-Biden Summit meeting in Washington.

Among others, the Joint Statement of the 2+2 meeting in March 2021 highlighted China’s coercive activities and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development as well as the following commitments; Japan’s resolve to enhance its capabilities to bolster national defence and further strengthen the Alliance; America’s unwavering commitment to the defence of Japan through the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear; and renewing their commitment to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and a rules-based international order.

US and Japanese officials, Tokyo
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet with then-Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga and then-Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Tokyo, Japan - March 16, 2021. Image credit: US Department of State, Flickr.

In order to ensure tailored deterrence and to undertake a comprehensive and integrated review of roles, missions and capabilities, it is vital for Japan, individually and collectively with the US to take a hard look at developments in such areas as changes in China’s strategic calculus, the military balance between China and US and its allies, the impact of influence operations and effective response measures, possible threatening scenarios from normal situations to extreme cases, the relevance and roles of extended nuclear deterrence in the age of borderless and persistent grey-zone competition. Initial answers to these questions will be incorporated as the takeaways in a scheduled 2+2 meeting towards the end of this year. It will not be easy to come up with tangible steps to advance these shared policy priorities. It has to be accepted that, even assuming sustained political attention, this agenda will take considerable time to address. It is important, however, that it be addressed with a sense of urgency and a strong focus on actionable outcomes.

Taiwan has again become a topic of political and public debate in Japan, reflecting the political, economic and military situation surrounding Taiwan and, in particular, the concerted surge in activities directed at Taiwan by China and the PLA. In addition, it has been increasingly and convincingly recognised by Japanese policy makers and the public that China is persistently taking coercive actions regarding its core interest issues on all fronts and that there are compelling strategic linkages between the Senkaku islands, Taiwan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. After experiencing the global impact of COVID-19, including on global supply chains for strategic goods such as semi-conductors, a new awareness has begun to take shape in Japan. First, people are now beginning to more fully understand the significance of maintaining stable cross-strait relations and see this stability as being challenged at the present time. Second, policy experts are now calling for concrete measures to build closer and more substantive cooperative ties between Taiwan and Japan across the board and, specifically, not only in the context of US-Japan or US-Taiwan-Japan cooperation.

In spite of a politically deep-seated reluctance to promote measures to seek security cooperation with Taiwan, a series of evident attempts by China to change status quo has triggered interest in strengthening deterrence as well as probing the limits or uncertainties of deterrence. Whether or not the coming 2+2 meeting explicitly takes up a review of the 2015 Guidelines for Japan-US Defence Cooperation in the context of Taiwan, it is an urgent and inescapable issue on the bilateral agenda. What is important will be
to give priority to ensuring effective integration of whole of government planning, broader participation of all stakeholders in the policy making processes related to diplomacy and defence, and to operationalise 24/7 information sharing and coordinating across the board, both at home and in bilateral and multilateral contexts elsewhere. In order to maintain regional stability and prepare for potential surprises, it will be vital to develop and strengthen the web of routine working relationships and close communication channels across all areas of mutual interest, not excluding security and defence.

In approaching the review of the 2018 NDPG and the 5 year defence plan, in order to build “a truly effective defence capability that does not lie on a linear extension of the past”, there remain three major challenges. First, budget allocation. As articulated in the 2018 NDPG, “thorough rationalization that does not dwell on the past” is a must, but that should not mean less than modest increases in the defence budget. It is worth noting that Japan’s defence spending for FY 2021 is just 4% higher than for FY1997, a quarter of a century earlier. The budget request for FY 2022 provides for a still modest 7% increase. The broad security review being undertaken is predicated on sufficient and sustainable funding, despite the increasingly tight competition for government resources.

Second, breaking the silos. In the past process, a “coordinated and well-balanced single draft plan”
was proposed by the MOD and, in broad terms, was approved with these qualities intact. When it
came to implementation, however, the integrated nature of the plan was neglected as the traditional bureaucratic silos (land, sea and air) pressed their separate claims. One possible pragmatic approach would be to ask the MOD and the expert community outside the DOD, to propose ways of looking at force structure that are responsive to new technologies, strategies and tactics and which erode the relevance of traditional divisions.

Third, gaining public understanding of and support for reviewing and revising traditional policy measures. In the LDP Presidential election campaign, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater reliance of online meetings, major debates were conducted virtually and it turned out to be an open, transparent and interactive process for policy making. The issues addressed included significant increases in the defence budget, how to fill the missile gap between Japan and China as well as Japan and North Korea, the question of active defence to deter these countries and further elevation of the Japan-US alliance. The task ahead will be to engineer a relative transition from policy debates over abstract frameworks and legal aspects to a focus on presenting specific policy options and concrete measures to be attained in specified timeframes and addressing the requirements of scenarios ranging from the normal to the extreme.

Japan issued its Cyber Security Strategy 2021 in September after reviewing and updating its 2018 Strategy. Reflecting the rapid changes and developments in the international security environments and in technologies, this new strategy includes some notable changes. First, it highlighted the increasingly severe international security challenges, the new normality of cyberspace as a sphere of geopolitical competition, and named China, Russia and North Korea as presumed to be conducting cyberattacks against Japan. Second, the strategy calls for measures to counter cyber incidents and challenges to international rule-making andto develop dependable guidelines to separate cyberspace measures that seek to advance freedom and fairness from those aimed at national control of cyberspace.

Prior to the formulation of the strategy, Japan’s National Security Council made its recommendations to the Cyber Security Strategy Headquarters, highlighting the following points. First, strengthen cyberspace situational awareness including measures necessary to enhance attribution capability utilising all sources of information. Second, strengthen defence capability against cyberattacks across the board, focusing on massive collection, accumulation and exploitation of data related to cyberattacks, protection of government networks as well as critical infrastructure, and SDF capability based on the 2018 NDPG. Third, strengthen cyber deterrent capability in a seamless manner ranging from normal situations to extreme contingencies, including taking measures to disrupt cyberattacks and making public attribution by fully exercising all resources and in close cooperation with allied and like-minded countries. Four, integrate and coordinate all efforts to strengthen cybersecurity under the guidance of the National Security Council and its Secretariat, while promoting international cooperation and collaboration, and confidence building measures. Five, ensure credible cyberspace capabilities to provide reassurance from the social, commercial and individual standpoints.

For the government to fully implement these measures, it will clearly require some political courage to go beyond traditional interpretation of the Constitution, other legal and also psychologically self-imposed restraints and deep-seated sensitivities regarding government handling of personal data. To explore robust measures to tackle the complicated issues related to cyberspace, one idea would be to learn lessons from the extensive debates triggered by the national legislation package considered by the Abe Cabinet. That process was composed of expert group reports on the need to make a change, ruling-coalition party debates and discussions leading to the Cabinet Decision that included a new interpretation of the Constitution and a specific timeline for the comprehensive measures to be implemented. How the establishment of the Digital Agency in September 2021 will approach its task remains to be seen.

It is true that accumulating cooperation in such areas as climate change, global health and disarmament treaties was generally believed to provide opportunities for sharing ideas and promoting cooperation as well as building confidence and trust. Looking at what Xi Jinping has sought through 2021, the year of the 100th anniversaryof the CCP, engaging with China remains a formidable challenge. The most difficult element is that China uses the issues of climate security, economic security and health security as channels that can be used to deliver coercive pressure and shape the international order in its favour.

One defining issue regarding the review of the 2013 NSS will be characterising Japan-China relations given that 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of Japan-China diplomatic normalisation. The NSS currently states that “Japan will strive to construct and enhance a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests with China in all areas, including politics, economy, finance, security, culture and personal exchanges.” It is in both countries’ interest to increase multi-layered dialogue including on crisis management and areas of cooperation. China and Japan should make every effort to avoid “a Mutually Undermining Relationship” by exploring new common strategic interests in the changing security environment. Hopefully, we will see some policy successes so that not all of the current challenges, such as the denuclearisation of North Korea, and transparent and integrated capacity- building in the Indo-Pacific will remain valid over the coming years.

Nobushige Takamizawa is Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo.

Banner image: Then-Foreign Minister of Japan Toshimitsu Motegi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken greet one another, Tokyo, Japan - March 16, 2021. Credit: US Department of State, Flickr.

This article was first published in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific’s Regional Security Outlook 2022.