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'A new Japan is indeed taking shape that will have major implications for the world'

An in-depth analysis of Japan's new military strategy. Gautam Sen argues that this new approach towards the defence of Japan will, likely, change Asia and the world.

A new age is dawning for the Japanese army.

Japan has recently published an outline of its National Defense Strategy and it embodies a major change in its reticent past policy orientation since the end of WWII. It is of interest to friends and foes in both the Indo Pacific and East Asia and especially China, India and Taiwan. The re-orientation of Japan’s defense posture is essentially the outcome China’s revisionist policy, accentuated since the accession of President Xi Jinping to political power and China’s greater assertiveness.

But threats posed by the DRK, North Korea and Russia are also highlighted with particular reference to the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. The belligerence of the DRK and the growing cooperation between Russia and China are also noted with concern.

There is an understandable reaffirmation of the need for deeper cooperation with the US through the Alliance Coordination of Mechanism in areas ‘such as air-defense, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine-warfare, amphibious operations, airborne operations, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting (ISRT), protection of assets and facilities, and logistic support’.

A deeper level is suggested for joint infrastructure and reaffirmation of the commitment to provide facilities for US troops stationed in Japan. Yet the novel underpinning of Japan’s new National Defense Strategy is the intention to significantly augment its own defense endeavours and a commitment to raise defense spending by fifty per cent as a proportion of GDP, from 1% to 1.5%.

The idea of bolstering national defense capabilities as a form of deterrence implies an unspoken recognition of the fragility of dependence on the US alone. Hence, the National Defense Strategy affirms Japan’s own responsibility to disrupt and defeat foreign aggression and military capability, to be acquired by FY 2027, to do so that will raise costs for an adversary. But the imperative of cooperation with the US for national defense is reaffirmed throughout the National Defense Strategy document. At the outset, Japan’s defense perspective also underlines the importance of cooperation with others sharing common strategic goals and a democratic political culture and unwilling to countenance unilateral changes to the status quo. Thus diplomatic cooperation with likeminded countries, other than its traditional ally the US, to prevent unilateral changes to the status quo is to be combined with the specific commitment to reinforce national defense capabilities.

The need to bolster Japan’s own defensive capabilities is mindful of the technological context of the challenges faced by objects of aggressive Chinese attention. China’s defense expenditure first exceeded Japan’s in 1998 and by 2022 it was almost five times larger and the actual amount is likely to be more since the computed spending excludes many items. There is awareness of China’s military-civilian integration strategy that is underpinning new technologies like unmanned assets in conjunction with advances in artificial intelligence (AI). There is also recognition of the relevance of the cyber domain and information warfare and the issue of climate change.

These are areas in which China is threatening to steal a march over its rivals and has done so in some critical areas. As a result, China’s air and naval assets exceed Japan’s and rapid advances are being achieved in the cyber and space domains too. China is also acquiring significant intermediate and long range missile capabilities, both nuclear and non-nuclear, as well as developing hypersonic glide vehicles. In response, Japan has constructed a Multi Domain Defense Force that will interconnect a range of comparable elements of warfare that integrate space, cyber and electromagnetic components seamlessly with ground maritime and air domains. In a significant departure from tradition, there is also mention of an effective counterstrike capability because defensive measures alone against the growing threat of missile attacks are regarded as insufficient.

Cooperation is highlighted with other countries like Australia, with whom Japan has a Special Strategic Partnership in the Indo Pacific Region and the EU and NATO are also partners with whom Japan is engaged. The Republic of Korea occupies a particular special place owing to the threat posed by North Korea’s missile programme and nuclear weapons arsenal. Various dimensions of interaction with Southeast Asia through ASEAN will retain relevance. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation with New Zealand and Canada find a mention as does collaboration with the Nordic countries, Central Asia, the African continent and the Middle East with whom continuing diplomatic and other forms of engagement are intended. In the increased global thrust of Japan’s diplomacy and forms of military cooperation relations with India are occurring in the context of the Special Strategic and Global Partnership. It embraces bilateral and multilateral engagement in broad areas of common interest including maritime and cybersecurity, defense equipment and technology. Japan’s civilian economic and technological interaction with India is in the process of reaching new heights as well.

In this context, the aspiration of the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party announced in 2017 to achieve modernization of its armed forces by 2035 and achieve global primacy in standards by 2050 is ominous. In its successor report of 2022, the stated goal was: “new system for mobilizing resources nationwide,” promotes integrated development of “mechanization, informatization and the application of smart technologies” and thereby extensively and rapidly enhancing its military capability in a qualitative and quantitative manner. China defines the next five years as the crucial period to start the full-scale construction of a 'modern socialist country'.

Such aspirations are already taking concrete shape in Chinese naval activity around oceans surrounding Japan, including the Senkaku, Igu and Ogasaware Islands and incursions into Japanese territorial waters. Besides, the threat to Taiwan has heightened dramatically, with China intensifying naval, aerial activity across the Taiwan Straits and missile launches in the recent past. Any alteration in in the status of Taiwan, peacefully or otherwise, would be a strategic game changer in the Indo Pacific and the region more generally, an issue that clearly exercises both Japan and its ally, the US.

There is also concern over the impact of Japan’s demographic challenges, the need for freedom of navigation to cater to its high dependence on overseas trade and its proneness to natural disaster. There is awareness of the requirement to be proactive and adapt for the changing capabilities and intentions of prosecuting warfare of rivals. In the worst case scenario, their needs to be an ability to prevent invasions Japan itself and, finally, how to deal with nuclear threats. Although reliance on the US for nuclear deterrence is underlined Japan itself already has the capacity to field missile delivery systems and could go to the next level of nuclear warheads relatively quickly.

The importance placed on cooperation with the US for Japan’s defense highlights an importance limitation on the country. Japan will continue to comply with US wishes on most issues to feel confident it retains an ultimate guarantee from the US for its own security. This is an issue of importance that has been amply illustrated by the degree to which Europe’s US NATO allies have been willing to accept the costs of complying with US demands over the Ukraine war.

It is this very issue, obedient vassalage in reality, which has resurfaced with some ugliness during the Ukrainian crisis, since India has continued to insistence on its autonomy to adopt policies that are considered to suit its own national interests.

Japan’s preparedness to protect its territory and deter aggression entails willingness to take action beyond national territorial waters when necessary, in a departure from the pacifist doctrines of the 1950s. Japan’s transforming policy on defence will require a whole portfolio of enhancements, encompassing domestic defence productive capacity and the ability to engage militarily on land, sea, air and space with a whole gamut of military capabilities.

To quote the graphic depiction Japan’s National Defense Strategy: “these arise mainly from the threat posed by China and the rapid advance of its warfighting skills and apparent intentions way of warfare has also drastically changed. In addition to the traditional forms of invasion through air, sea, and land, new ways of warfare have emerged with the combination of massive missile strike by ballistic and cruise missiles with enhanced precision strike capabilities, hybrid warfare including information warfare such as false-flag operations, asymmetric attacks leveraging the space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum domains and with unmanned assets, and public remarks by nuclear powers that could be interpreted as threat using nuclear weapons”.

The document is somewhat repetitive but some critical themes recur in it, among the most important of which are augmentation of Japan’s national defense and warfighting capabilities across and wide spectrum, with emphases on diverse dimensions and a significant budgetary increase to achieve goals. The second constant refrain is the importance of the of military, political and military alliance with the US though in the context of much greater national self-reliance. There is a genuine globalist perspective as well in the desire to engage virtually all regions of the world through economic and political cooperation.

The underlying perspective is a desire to uphold the liberal democratic order in a shared vision with like-minded countries. India clearly occupies an increasingly important position in this realpolitik because it will become a major counterweight to China by virtue of size and its ongoing economic and military trajectory. Both also face enduring challenges from China. However, in the end, the US is the primordial fulcrum for Japan owing to pragmatic and psychological reasons and that means no dramatic policy, including commitments to India, can occur without its consent, for the foreseeable future at any rate.

Despite the reactive nature of the proposals on Japan’s National Defense Strategy there is also a wish to engage diplomatically with adversaries to manage disputes. But a new Japan is indeed taking shape that will have major implications for the region and the world.


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