Japan’s Great Turning Point in Defense Policy – The Diplomat


Japan has marked a key milestone in its efforts to overhaul its defense strategy, increase national defense spending and allow Tokyo to acquire counter-missile capability.

On December 16, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s cabinet approved the nation’s three key security documents that will mark a major turning point in Japan’s post-war policy of maintaining an exclusively defense-oriented policy if implemented. Japan is on course to return to a “normal nation” in the long term, allowing the nation to possess – and potentially use – offensive capabilities to target enemy missile bases in the event of an armed attack on Tokyo.

Tokyo “is in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since World War II,” stressed the new National Security Strategy (NSS), which spearheads the three documents.

It added that “under the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), it is vital for Japan’s security to work with allies and like-minded countries to ensure peace and stability in the region.” The countries mentioned in the NSS include the United States, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries.

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The other two documents are the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP), which were first adopted concurrently with the NSS. Together, these three documents will shape Japan’s overall strategy, defense policy, and defense acquisition goals.

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The NSS provides the nation’s highest strategic direction for diplomacy, defence, economic security, technology, cyber and intelligence for the next decade. It has been revised for the first time since its inception in December 2013.

Officially known as the National Defense Program Guidelines, the NDS establish defense goals and identify ways and means to achieve the goals. This time, the NDS adhered to the naming convention of the US Department of Defense.

The DBP, formerly known as the Medium-Term Defense Program, sets total defense spending and major equipment procurement volumes for the next five to ten years.


The DBP document stipulates that Japan will increase defense spending to 43 trillion yen ($314 billion) from fiscal years 2023 to 2027. This is a 56.5 percent increase from the 27.47 trillion yen in the current five-year plan, which covers fiscal years 2019-2023 its defense and finance ministers in late November.

The increased defense spending will allow Japan to acquire many standoff missiles that can be used for counterattacks, including the US-made Tomahawk cruise missile.

Is this a departure from Japan’s purely defense-oriented policy?

As a reason for acquiring such a counter-strike capability, government officials stressed that anti-missile defense capabilities in the region have improved significantly, both qualitatively and quantitatively, forcing Tokyo to improve its anti-missile defense capabilities. If Japan continues to rely solely on ballistic missile (BMD) defense, it will become increasingly difficult for Japan to counter missile threats with its existing missile defense network alone.

Government officials also stressed that a counter-strike capability falls within the purview of the pacifist Japanese constitution and international law and will not change the concept of a purely defense-oriented policy, called senshu boei in Japanese. They also pointed out that each offensive ability is used only when a situation meets what are known as the three new conditions for the use of force. Nothing will change about Japan’s ban on pre-emptive strikes.

The three conditions for Tokyo’s use of counter-strike missiles are: when an armed attack on Japan or a foreign country with close ties to Tokyo threatens Japan’s national survival, when there are no other appropriate measures to eliminate the threat, and when the use of force is limited to what is absolutely necessary.

Is China a threat?

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The main focus of the three security documents is on dealing with an emerging China. How will Japan defend itself in the face of China’s rapid military rise? How much defense capability and defense budget will Japan need to face China? These are the fundamental questions behind the documents, although they were never explicitly asked there.

The updated language of the NSS describes China as “the greatest strategic challenge” to Japan, while the 2013 version of the NSS described China’s actions only as “a concern of the international community”.

Remarkably, even in the updated documents, Japan has avoided calling China a “threat.” A key reason for this is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s political considerations towards its junior coalition partner Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist group. Historically, this religious organization has close ties to Beijing as it helped lay the groundwork for then Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and his Foreign Minister Ohira Masayoshi to normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1972.


Moreover, Kishida, who leads the LDP’s Kochikai faction – traditionally more moderate and committed to Japan’s neighbors – has repeatedly said, “It is important to build constructive and stable relations with China.”

The language used for China stands in sharp contrast to the fact that the NSS this time describes North Korea as “an even more serious and imminent threat to the national security of Japan than ever before”.

At the pre-release press conference on December 13, I asked, “Why didn’t you name China as a threat?”

In response, a senior cabinet secretariat official stressed that the Japanese government needed to look at China from multiple perspectives.

“While Japan needs to develop its defense capabilities by keeping a close eye on China’s national goals, military trends and military capabilities, China is the world’s second largest economy, so we must encourage it to engage firmly in the international framework. When considering various aspects such as military, economic and diplomatic, it is not a good idea to simply use the word “threat” towards China,” the official said.

“We call China ‘the greatest strategic challenge of all time,’ but ‘strategic’ also means we need to look at it from different perspectives,” the official added.

In addition, the Cabinet Secretariat official pointed out that even the National Security Strategy released by the US government in October identified China as “America’s most momentous geopolitical challenge.” The official said Japan and the United States are in alignment on key documents.

However, the United States has sometimes referred to China as a “threat” in its key documents. For example, the new strategy “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power” implemented by the US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in December 2020 repeatedly identifies China as a “threat”.

It is true that a dualistic framework – like the notion of viewing another country as either a “threat” or “not a threat” – tends to foment confrontation and instability. Dualism, especially when intertwined with territorial and historical issues, can lead to an upsurge of nationalism and patriotism in any country and a loss of self-control.

On the other hand, however, it is also true that an ambiguous attitude weakens deterrence towards other countries and can increase the risk of conflict. An ambiguous strategy can lead to misunderstandings and unexpected conflicts that lead to dangerous situations. In contrast, a clear strategy spreads easily to national institutions and improves the ability to implement policies and increases internal and external transparency.

US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that the US military will protect Taiwan if China invades Taiwan. Apparently, Biden wants to reduce the risk of an emergency in Taiwan. However, there is no consensus on this even within the USA – critics argue that Biden’s clarity actually increases the risk of conflict.

The United States views China as “the only competitor with both intent to transform the international order and increasingly possessing the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might to advance that goal.” Washington has identified the next decade – the same period covered by Japan’s three new security documents – as a critical period.


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How should Japan deal with China? The country will have to deal intensively with this question in the coming decade.