Japan's New National Security Strategy & Its Impacts on Regional Stability

March 27, 2014

Masashi Nishihara
, President, Research Institute for Peace and Security (RIPS)

George Packard
, President, United States-Japan Foundation

On March 27, 2014, Masashi Nishihara of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo, spoke at Japan Society about Japan's strategies to cope with the security threats that the country faces today.

Japan's Security Concerns
There are three security issues that are of greatest concern for Japan, Dr. Nishihara observed.

The first is North Korea, a country only 400-odd miles off Japan's shores that possesses an unstable political leadership and some unknown number of nuclear weapons—the "lack of transparency add[ing] to our perceived threats."

The second is the long sea lines of communication between the Gulf and Japan. They run through many chokepoints and conflict areas from the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan and the East China Sea. These routes are critical for trade with Europe and Asia. And 85 percent of Japan's oil imports come through these sea lines, a factor even more crucial to the well-being of the Japanese economy since the 2011 tsunami and the ensuing shutdown of all of the country's nuclear plants.

And the third is China, whose military presence has quadrupled over the past 20 years. "Needless to say, the Senkaku Islands are the core of Tokyo/Beijing tensions," as Beijing sends to the area "not only fishing boats, but government patrol boats, surveillance ships, naval surface ships, submarines, military surveillance planes and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]." China's "military actions clearly suggest that it wants to make the East and South China Seas into so-called internal lakes, driving the U.S. presence out of them."

Countering the Security Threats

To meet North Korea's missile threats, Japan, working closely with the U.S., has employed missile defense systems, Dr. Nishihara said. However, "the two countries have limited advance knowledge of their nuclear and missile tests. We also are lacking in our intelligence on what is going on inside North Korea."

The Abe government has bumped up Japan's defense budgets for fiscal 2013 and 2014, albeit by a "quite modest" amount, a little over 2 percent.

To promote better high-level communication between Tokyo and Washington, the government has set up a national security council, a counterpart to the U.S. NSC.

Under Prime Minister Abe, the government has produced a National Security Strategy Review, the first of its kind in post-World War II Japan. "The National Security Strategy stresses the need to build an integrated rapid-response defense capability to prevent direct threats and expel them, if necessary," he noted. "The Strategy refers to the need to build a stronger patrol capability to defend Japan's remote islands and to strengthen relations with strategic partners to defend long sea lines. It recognizes the importance of U.S. extended deterrence based on nuclear deterrence."

Mr. Abe has made clear his "strong desire to revise the interpretation of Article 9 so that the Self-Defense Forces can exercise the right of collective self-defense," a development that Dr. Nishihara called "perhaps the most significant and politically controversial" of his administration. "If and when Japan can engage in collective self-defense missions, it will significantly improve Japan's defense posture. Japanese forces will be able to support American forces, ships and airplanes if they are under attack outside the Japanese territorial waters."

To bolster its abilities to defend the Senkakus, Japan is putting together an integrated amphibious operation capability, building more ships for its Coast Guard and making plans to buy Osprey helicopters, which can fly round-trip between Okinawa and the Senkakus without having to refuel.

Challenges to the U.S.-Japan Alliance
On China. Japan and the U.S. hold somewhat different perspectives on China's power, Dr. Nishihara said. For one thing, "many Japanese tend to regard that China's economic growth has hit the peak," whereas "many Americans... speculate that China will continue to grow" and overtake the U.S. in the 2020s.

In the realm of geopolitics, "Japan is surprised to learn that high-ranking officials of the U.S. government seem to acknowledge 'a new type of great power relationship,'" apparently adopting language from President Xi Jinping's talk to President Obama in June last year. In this talk, President Xi also stated that "'the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space to accommodate the two big nations of China and the United States.'" Such a division of the region into two spheres of influence, with "China controlling the western half of the Pacific, would not be acceptable to Japan," Dr. Nishihara said.

Both Japan and the U.S. condemned China's establishment of its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) last year in the East China Sea. Japan rejected China's demand that commercial flights submit their flight plans, and hoped the U.S. would do likewise, but the U.S. chose to comply.

On Abe's Conservative Stance.
"I would like to see journalists, including American journalists, taking a more balanced approach to Prime Minister Abe's remarks and activities," Dr. Nishihara said. "For sure, visiting Yasukuni in December last year, he miscalculated the reaction of China and South Korea." Yet "few foreign journalists" have reported on the visit's positive aspects, particularly Abe's statement paying respect to the 2.5 million soldiers enshrined at Yasukuni and pledging "to work for peace and no war."

Future Scenarios for the Asia-Pacific Region

"What is important is for Japan and the U.S. to maintain the favorable balance of power vis-à-vis China," Dr. Nishihara concluded. "If U.S. power becomes weaker in the Pacific, Japan should fill in the gap."

"As Japan's National Security Strategy document indicates, Japan, together with the U.S., desires to strengthen the coalition with other like-minded nations such as ASEAN, Australia and India. Japan needs to become stronger in economic and security fields so that it can work more efficiently and more effectively with those nations."


George Packard of the United States-Japan Foundation, who presided, began the Q&A:

As I read the polls in the Japanese press, there seems to be a great deal of opposition to changing the interpretation of the constitution so Japan can engage in collective self-defense. Will this cost Abe-san politically if he pushes too hard? Cost him his prime ministership?

"I'm not sure if it will cost him his prime ministership. But I think he will have difficulties in pushing this idea," Dr. Nishihara said. Komeito opposes it, and even some members of his own party. Mr. Abe plans to announce a revision of the interpretation in June or so, with new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines to come out by the end of 2014. But what actually takes place may vary.

Audience members continued the discussion:

What are your thoughts in general about not just Japan, but any country's ability to defend itself when we are all at such touchy places in the world today?

"It is very important for anyone to try to defend themselves. We have to be very careful," Dr. Nishihara said. "We do strongly argue that we need the rule of law in settling issues."

Is there anything that Japan could do proactively to suppress or get beyond the historical disputes among Japan, South Korea, even Russia, to deal with this rising—if it is a threat, China?

"If we use history issues at the center of diplomatic relations, then we can never get through.... Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The U.S. dropped atomic bombs. If both sides used these issues as a center of diplomatic relations, we can never get through. What the two countries have done is to leave them aside, let the scholars discuss this, and no government discussions on those issues. I wish that would happen to us and Koreans, and to us and the Chinese."

In the U.S. there is fascination with Mr. Abe, and also a bit of trepidation about him. He's known as an ideologue—a nationalist, very concerned with his grandfather, Mr. Kishi, and redressing the injustices done to Japan, reasserting Japan—and as a pragmatist, Abenomics and the whole thing. What is your take?

"I am often troubled by the term nationalism. Americans use the term patriotism, and then you make a difference between patriotism and nationalism. But for Japan they are the same—practically the same."

"But I do agree when you say that Abe is a conservative. In many ways he's a nationalist. But he also thinks that in order to advance, he ought to pay more attention to other pragmatic issues."

Prime Minister Abe has said that Japan wants to have a proactive peace contribution in some sort of international context. Assuming that the reinterpretation on collective self-defense is somehow agreed upon, can we then think that Japan will be doing things proactively in the Middle East, Africa or other parts of the world?

"Theoretically it's possible," Dr. Nishihara said. "But in order for us to be able to work in the Middle East, for example, we have to have access to the bases.... Even for the protection of sea lines, we can't do it, because we have to have some ports or access to ports on the way.... So, there is an actual limit to what we can do if we reinterpret the constitution."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Policy

Calendar of Events

April 2021

S M T W Th F S
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30  
All content © 2021, Japan Society, unless otherwise noted. |
333 East 47th Street New York, NY 10017 Phone: 212.832.1155 |
Credits | Press | Contact Us | Privacy Policy