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.