As regional threats rise, Japan eases defense-only strategy
TOKYO (AP) — In a major break with its pure post-war self-defense tenet, Japan on Friday adopted a national security strategy declaring plans to possess pre-emptive strike capabilities and cruise missiles within years to become more offensive against threats from neighboring China and North Korea.
With China, North Korea and Russia directly to the west and north, Japan faces “the most difficult and complicated national security environment since the end of the war,” the strategy said, referring to World War II. It called China “the greatest strategic challenge” – ahead of North Korea and Russia – to Japan’s efforts to ensure peace, security and stability for itself and international society.
Given its wartime history as an aggressor and the national devastation that followed its defeat, Japan’s post-war policies prioritized economic growth while keeping its security low by relying on American troops stationed in Japan as part of their bilateral security agreement. Japan’s defense build-up has long been a hot topic at home and in the region, particularly for Asian victims of Japanese wartime atrocities.
But experts say China’s growing influence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears of an emergency in Taiwan prompted many Japanese to support more capacity and spending.
“The Taiwan emergency and the Japan emergency are inextricably linked,” said Ken Jimbo, a defense expert at Keio University, noting that Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni is just 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Taiwan.
The rapid advance of missiles has become “realistic threats” in the region, making it difficult for existing missile defense systems to intercept, the strategy said. North Korea has launched more than 30 ballistic missiles this year, including one that flew over Japan. China fired five ballistic missiles into waters near Japan’s southern islands, including Okinawa.
Japan needs standoff or long-range missiles to retaliate and prevent further attacks “as an inevitable minimum defense measure,” the document said.
The plan will not be implemented until at least 2026 and includes the acquisition of the powerful long-range Tomahawk missile favored by the US and UK navies.
The new national security strategy, approved by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s cabinet along with two defense strategy documents, says possessing counter-strike capabilities is part of Japan’s effort to significantly bolster its military power and as a deterrent in its own right over the next five years itself and the US spend region.
This puts an end to the Japanese government’s 1956 policy of shelving counter-strike capability, recognizing the idea only as a constitutional last line of defense.
“Starting from the basic strengthening of defense power, we must be firmly prepared for the worst-case scenario,” the new strategy says.
US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel hailed the strategies as “a significant milestone” for Japan’s history, US-Japan relations and for making a “free and open Indo-Pacific” an achievable reality.
Japan plans to launch 5 trillion yen (37 billion missiles) as early as 2026. In order to be able to react quickly to possible attacks, Japan will also station several stand-off missile units at unknown locations.
Japanese defense officials said they are still negotiating details of the Tomahawk purchase.
After increasing its defense cooperation with Australia to a semi-allied level in recent years, Japan is hoping to practice the new capability in joint exercises hosted by Australia and also involving US militaries.
Japan says its exclusive self-defense policy remains unchanged, but “long-range cruise missiles represent an emerging capability that will fundamentally change Japan’s approach to deterrence,” Christopher Johnstone, a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said .
“An effective Japanese counter-strike capability would set the stage for a much deeper level of command-and-control integration with the United States than exists today,” he added.
Japan says it will maintain its pacifist principle of high standards for weapons equipment and technology transfer. However, some relaxations are planned to allow for currently restricted exports of offensive gear and components, including those of next-generation fighter jets that Japan is developing with Britain and Italy to bolster the country’s defense industry.
Japan’s government has renamed what is known as a pre-emptive strike to “counterstrike capability,” apparently to emphasize that it’s in self-defense. Despite a nuanced wording of the strategy, the main threat is China, which Japan has had to prepare for “using the North Korean threat as a cover,” said Tomohisa Takei, a retired admiral in the Japanese Navy.
The government says its deployment is constitutional when responding to signs of an impending enemy attack. But it’s extremely difficult, and Japan needs to improve its cybersecurity and rely fully on US intelligence to detect early signs of enemy missile launch preparation, experts say, to effectively cancel the attack without risking being responsible to be made a first strike. It will require a deeper alliance between Japan and the US to develop the capability, Johnstone said.
Experts, including former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, said the definition of the enemy’s attack intent is unclear and pre-emptive strikes could be considered first strikes.
Kishida has made defense construction and budget his political priority since taking office in October 2021. Under the defense strategy, Japan’s defense spending will total about 43 trillion yen ($320 billion) by 2027, 1.6 times the current five-year total, officials said.
Last month, Japan and the United States held a major joint military exercise in southern Japan to increase Allied readiness.
Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press