The Washington Quarterly: “Kishida the Accelerator: Japan’s Defense Evolution after Abe”

The Next Chapter in Japan’s Security Strategy

Japan’s unprecedently ambitious December 2022 strategic documents and out- comes from the January 2023 US-Japan meetings in Washington reflect a historic re-evaluation by Japan’s government of what it can and must do to more effec- tively enhance deterrence in response to a rapidly worsening regional and global security environment. The documents and subsequent Kishida govern- ment rhetoric are also noteworthy for their acknowledgment that decades of rela- tively stagnant defense spending mean Japan must not only develop new capabilities but also expeditiously and “fundamentally” reinforce its existing ones. In a country that has for decades effectively pegged the defense budget to an arbitrary ceiling of 1 percent of GDP, the authoritative coalition government’s call to surge spending by two-thirds by 2027 to enable this, as well as new capabilities, is extraordinary.The historic decisions to acquire “counterstrike capabilities” and “active cyber defense” for self-defense are particularly compelling testaments to how rapidly Japanese leaders’ sense of their nation’s security environment–and what is necess- ary for effective deterrence–has changed. Also remarkable but less commented upon: against the backdrop of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Japan’s public appears to recognize a changed reality. Though there is clear discomfort with some key measures (e.g., counterstrike), and how to pay for them, the Kishida Cabinet’s strategies have to date attracted far less domestic resistance than would have been likely in previous eras.

That these strikingly ambitious pledges occur under the administration of a prime minister heretofore almost universally identified by media as a “dove” not only reveals how much regional geopolitics and Japan’s domestic political terrain have shifted in recent years, but also exposes the pitfalls of excessive focus on individual leaders as the primary determinants of Japan’s national security tra- jectory. Leaders of course matter greatly, but other potent factors are also at play.

While Japan’s new national security and defense strategies are unprecedently ambitious and potentially transformative, core, unique pillars of Japan’s decades- old defense orientation also persist. Rather than marking an across-the-board “disjuncture,” the developments of the past few months are the opening pages of the latest chapter—sure to be a major and fascinating one—in a multi- decade story of reforms to Japan’s national security-relevant institutions and pol- icies amidst a rapidly changing external environment.

The rest of this chapter is not yet final, however. Numerous stars will need to align over the next five to ten years for Japan to achieve the goals contained within these three documents. Domestic and international political vicissitudes will have a lot to say about whether Japan’s new national security ambitions will be sufficiently resourced, supported by robust new legislation, and efficiently and effectively implemented. The specifics of implementation, not just the head- lines, will matter greatly. Even if fully resourced and legislated, key components of Japan’s vision, including active cyber-defense and counter-strike capabilities, may take years to fully come online. Amid what the documents themselves call “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII” and with the world at a “historical inflection point,” the implications of these initiatives for Japan’s region and the world, to say nothing of its US ally’s own strategic objectives, are potentially profound. Watch this space.

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Brookings: “Japan’s new security policies: a long road to full implementation”

Pointing out the difficult road ahead is not meant to minimize the significance of the ambitions contained in Japan’s new national security and defense strategies, or to suggest achievement is unlikely. Rather, the intent is simply to highlight that despite the bold steps forward already taken by the Kishida Cabinet, there remain many unknowns about what will come next, and how bumpy the path forward is likely to be. One thing is certain: a lot of hard work — in both Tokyo and Washington — lies ahead.

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Wall Street Journal: “The Limits of Growth: Economic Headwinds Inform China’s Latest Military Budget”

With an official defense budget increase of 7.6% to 954 billion yuan ($147 billion) announced today, Beijing’s quest to restore China’s historic “greatness” and to attain international status as a military power commensurate with its economic standing continues. Yet with GDP growth slowing and social and demographic headwinds mounting, Chinese leaders face increasingly difficult tradeoffs concerning how to allocate government largesse.

With Beijing’s 2016 official defense budget, it is clear that even military spending is not immune to China’s economic and fiscal realities. Advance reports that…

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The Washington Quarterly: “Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary”

Far from constituting an abrupt transformation of Japan’s defense policy, recent measures adopted during the Abe era to large extent continue long-term trends initiated by previous governments from both his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). They reflect a significant, but evolutionary, rationalization of defense policy driven by growing concerns about regional security because of perceived threats from North Korea’s increasingly advanced nuclear and missile programs, a shifting regional military balance, and China’s maritime advancement and efforts to assert its sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. Other important factors include lessons learned from two decades of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) gradually expanding regional and global missions and a desire to maximize efficiencies in response to the changing nature and rising costs of military technology, fiscal constraints, a shrinking and aging population, and the Japanese public’s persistent, deep-seated skepticism about military power. In response to these challenges, Abe and his predecessors have pursued incremental changes to bolster deterrence, to deepen cooperation and interoperability with the United States as well as other partners, and to facilitate a more rapid, flexible, and effective response to a range of perceived traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Furthermore, a flawed yet widespread focus exclusively on changes to Japan’s security policy overlooks the persistence of strict, long-standing, and self-imposed constraints within which political leaders pursue these reforms. Rumors of their demise to the contrary, recent developments have stretched, but not removed, core principles that for decades have defined Japan’s self-restraint. As cases-in-point, political leaders still prohibit the JSDF from using military force outside a singular, narrow interpretation of self-defense, or developing—much less employing—offensive power projection or nuclear weapons. Though practically significant and historic in a Japanese context, recent reforms—up to and including collective self-defense—are, at most, reactive realism within strict normative bounds. Seventy years after Japan’s surrender, the public remains deeply skeptical about the employment of military power as a tool of foreign policy.
Recent developments have stretched, but not removed, Japan’s core principles of self-restraint.

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