Japan (as we’ve discussed before) is continuing to dial its military in, and unsurprisingly, that’s provoking some responses around eastern Asia. Air Force Intel officer Ryan Ashley has some thoughts. Excerpts, with my comments, follow.
Japan’s new defense vision is laid out in three strategic documents: a National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy (formerly known as the National Defense Program Guidelines), and the Defense Buildup Program (formerly known as the Medium-Term Defense Program). In conjunction, the documents commit Japan to gradually increase its defense spending to meet 2 percent of gross domestic product, mirroring the NATO target for defense spending. Within that vision would come 5-year investments of $7 billion in cyber warfare, $7 billion in space, and $6 billion towards a combined sixth-generation fighter aircraft development program with the United Kingdom and Italy, known as “Tempest.”
The highest profile investments in the documents are those for “counterstrike” or “counter-attack” capabilities, referring to the acquisition of long-range missiles capable of hitting ships or ground-based missiles from potentially 1,500–3,000 kilometers away. This would be a significant upgrade from Japan’s current supply of missiles, which are limited to a range of a few hundred kilometers and are predominantly designed for short-range defense. The documents correctly identify that Tokyo’s current missile arsenal and questions about the legality of so-called “left-of-launch” (striking an adversary’s missile before it can be launched itself) strikes have created gaps in Japanese deterrence.
Now consider the implications of this missile-capacity upgrade. Japan will now have not only a new sixth-generation fighter that may well be on a par with the F-22 and F-35, but they will have a new capability to carry out missile attacks on their neighbors – like, say, North Korea. They have, correctly, identified a gap in their defense structure, and now they mean to fill that gap.
Diplomatically, the documents pull few punches, declaring that “Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of [World War II].” The NSS unequivocally calls China “the greatest strategic challenge” facing Japan, labels North Korea “an even more grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security than ever before,” and reiterates Tokyo’s strong stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, few countries face a harsher strategic environment than Japan, in close proximity to China, North Korea, and Russia, and perceived as a threat or adversary by the governments of all three. The new strategic documents reinforce what Japanese security experts have long argued: Tokyo is on the front lines of conflict with two adversarial nations, and at a key vulnerable flank for another.
In other words, Japan is sitting out there alone, and they are concerned with the increasing instability of some of their neighbors – like, say, North Korea. Here’s the onion:
Observers in the United States should draw three conclusions from this new NSS. First, Japan is indeed committing to its most meaningful boost in defense capabilities since the end of World War II. The three strategic documents identify and attempt to address deterrence gaps that have long plagued Japanese security. Until recently, Tokyo proved unwilling to fill these gaps themselves, preferring to depend on the United States as its security guarantor. For several reasons, including the fear of American disengagement and an increasingly harsh strategic environment, the era of dependence on the United States appears to be over. The Japanese government still wholeheartedly supports its alliance with the United States, yet is simultaneously seeking to couple that relationship with the development of indigenous capabilities.
In other words, Tokyo no longer feels that the USA has their backs, for the first time since the post-WW2 treaty structure went into place.
It’s hard to fault Japan on this estimation. While the Trump Administration had very good relationships with then-Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, the subsequent Biden(‘s handlers) Administration has been marked with incompetence and indecisiveness. Add that to the increasing tendency towards nationalism in the USA, and you can see how Tokyo may be concerned that the USA no longer has Japan’s back in the event of a conflict.
But, to my thinking, there’s a much simpler reason for Japan to continue to dial their military in, and that is the fact that a nation should not have to rely on any other nation for their own defense. Japan is no exception, and it’s rapidly becoming apparent to the Japanese that they shouldn’t rely on the USA any longer. Also, if you read the referenced documents, there’s no indication that Japan is returning to the bad old days of imperialistic ambitions; they are remembering their martial traditions but their aim is still defense and vigorous response, not first-strike.
It should come as no surprise that I’m glad to see the Japanese taking more responsibility for their own defense. Mrs. Animal and I have spent a fair amount of time in the Land of the Rising Sun; we’re very fond of Japan, and hope to see it remain the unique place it is now.