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A New Strategy for a New Era

by Sheila A. Smith
December 17, 2013

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (4th L), flanked by Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera (5th L), reviews Japan Self-Defence Forces' (SDF) troops during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka, near Tokyo October 27, 2013 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (4th L), flanked by Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera (5th L), reviews Japan Self-Defence Forces' (SDF) troops during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka, near Tokyo October 27, 2013 (Issei Kato/Courtesy Reuters).

Calling it a “proactive strategy for maintaining peace,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today announced Japan’s new long-term National Security Strategy (NSS). This strategy statement is new for Japan, and represents the first comprehensive, “whole-of-government” effort to articulate the ends and means for Japan’s long-term security. While North Korea remains a serious challenge, the Abe cabinet has abandoned past hesitancy and has clearly identified China and its maritime activities as Japan’s primary security concern.

The NSS looks ahead to the next ten years rather than the typical five-year cycle of previous defense planning. In addition, the making of strategy has now been elevated to a new organization, the National Security Council (NSC), which was created to bring the bureaucracies together under the prime minister to forge a more unified national strategy.

Perhaps most notable of the NSS is the effort taken to define what kind of country Japan is—to identify the principles that guide its strategic thinking and to articulate its national interests. The document presents a dense list of premises that have been at the heart of Japan’s postwar prosperity and success, beginning with the universal values of freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law, an open international economy, and open and stable seas.

The Strategy puts forward three national interests. The first two are basic interests in maintaining sovereignty and independence as well as achieving prosperity and economic development. But the third offers a clear message that Japan wants to be part of a broader community that commits to “maintaining and protecting an international order based on rules and universal values.”

Overall the assessment of Japan’s security environment and national security needs reveals continuity rather than a dramatic departure from the past. Included are references to the changing balance of power in the region and technological innovation. Proliferation remains high on the list of Japanese concerns, and the new risks to the global commons (the ocean, cyber, and space) and international terrorism also feature in the strategy.

In Northeast Asia, Japan’s security concerns are not new, but there is evidence of a heightened sense of urgency about the changes taking place in the region. Japan continues to be concerned about missile and potential nuclear provocations from North Korea. Included in the NSS is a direct reference to Kim Jong-un’s regime and the question of its future stability. A comprehensive approach to missile defense will be considered, including the potential for active defenses against North Korean launch sites.

But it is China’s rise and “intensified activities” in and around Japan that stand out in this new strategy. The island dispute with China has prompted considerable Japanese attention to its southwestern defenses. Whereas past defense statements have tended to focus on China’s growing military capabilities, this new strategy clearly focuses on Chinese behavior. It identifies Chinese incursions into Japan’s territorial seas and airspace around the islands and its announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) as evidence of “attempts to change the status quo by coercion.”

The plan comes with important upgrades for Japan’s military. Maritime capability will be improved, with a larger number of ships and an emphasis on jointness between Japan’s maritime and air defenses. The Ground Self-Defense Force will also be given significant amphibious capability, with fifty-two new landing vehicles, to improve island defense capabilities. Japan will also introduce the new Osprey MV-22 helicopters as well as drones (UAVs) for intelligence gathering.

Japan’s new maritime objectives also include enhanced law enforcement capabilities. The Japan Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for maritime patrols, and will likely continue to be given greater funding in the years to come. Coordination between the Self-Defense Force and the Coast Guard will be another area for reform. Interestingly, the Strategy also includes a review of land ownership in “remote islands near national borders” as well as around defense facilities, suggesting new policies could be put in place to ensure state control over their use. Finally, Japan’s new strategy commits to assisting other states to enhance their maritime law enforcement capabilities.

There is a bit of what the Japanese media refers to as “Abe color” in its final pages, where the NSS admonishes Japan’s citizens to consider their individual responsibility for the nation’s defense. While innocuous enough, it sits uncomfortably at the end of a rather pragmatic statement of Japan’s strategic intent, and in Tokyo the media was quick to pick up on this rhetorical flourish that seems reminiscent of a state-society relationship many Japanese would prefer remained as part of their past rather than their future.

While promising a whole-of-government approach, this is primarily a security planning document rather than a holistic strategic plan for Japan. There are mentions of the importance of economic policy, but little in the way of incorporating economic planning into strategic aims or architecture. In addition, the document spends little time on non-military instruments, such as ODA and trade and investment agreements, and their role in the pursuit of Japanese global aims. Perhaps there will be a refinement of this going forward, but for now this is clearly a document that relies heavily on defense and diplomacy.

The NSS is best understood, however, in the context of the broader defense reform agenda being pursued by the Abe government. It is largely focused on architecture, and on ensuring that Japan is well prepared should it need to take military action. The NSC and the secrecy protection law, which drew considerable criticism of the prime minister and his agenda, were the first steps, and this NSS and the accompanying National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program are the second phase of reform. Beginning in the new year, expect the Abe government to move forward on funding this new strategy, on deliberations with Washington on revising the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, and on a much anticipated debate over the use of force by the Japanese military.

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