By Swapnil Ghosh
Japan’s new National Security Strategy has taken its military spending to unprecedented levels. This marks a drastic departure from historical precedent, and has major implications for Indo Pacific security. This article will examine the historical development of the Japanese Self Defence Forces and the diplomatic and military measures outlined in the new NSS.
Background: Article 9 and the Development of the JSDF
Japan’s post-Second World War commitment to renouncing aggressive war remains one of the most celebrated examples of a state pursuing genuinely ethics-based policies. Japan’s status as a peace-loving nation is legally enshrined in Article 9 of its constitution. Drafted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Article 9 reflected Japan’s regrets regarding its aggressive wars and expansionist policies, which ultimately led to the devastation of the Japanese mainland itself.
Article 9 has two key provisions:
I) Aspiring to an international order founded on peace, Japan renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation, and the threat or use of force as a way of settling international disputes.
II) Japan will never maintain armed forces, or any war potential. The right to belligerency of the Japanese state will never be recognised.
The realities of the Cold War meant that almost from its inception, Article 9 began to be interpreted in flexible terms. A surprisingly strong advocate of Japanese rearmament was its old foe, the USA: the rise of Communism in China prompted a desire amongst US policymakers for new military allies in Asia.
The Korean War led to the first instance of Japanese rearmament. After US troops based in Japan were redeployed to Korea, the US government decreed the creation of a 75,000-strong National Police Reserve to maintain internal order and protect Japan in the case of any foreign invasion. Despite being termed a police force, the NPR was equipped with surplus US Army equipment. To avoid raising tricky questions vis-à-vis Article 9, military equipment was given civilian names; tanks, for example, were euphemistically referred to as “special vehicles.” Questions were still asked; the Japanese Socialist Party unsuccessfully requested the Supreme Court to declare the NPR unconstitutional.
In 1954, the NPR was reorganised into its present form as the Japanese Self Defence Forces. This naming convention was to preserve the spirit of Article 9; according to the Japanese government, the JSDF does not violate Clause II of Article 9 (“no armed forces or war potential”) since it is intended purely for self-defence, and “war potential” is interpreted as the potential to carry out aggressive war.
Historically, categories of weapons that the JSDF is forbidden from possessing because of their inherently offensive potential include Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, fixed-wing aircraft carriers, and strategic bombers. A special prohibition is imposed on nuclear weapons; even before Japan became a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its Atomic Energy Basic Law of 1955 limited the development and use of nuclear power to peaceful uses only.
The above prohibitions have not stopped Japan from acquiring “defensive” weapons like submarines, helicopter carriers, or fighter aircraft. And despite never showing any inclinations, even today, towards nuclear weapons, Japan’s extensive nuclear power plant program and knowledge of nuclear research mean that it can develop nuclear weapons very quickly if it ever wants to; some experts have even described it as being a “screwdriver’s turn” away from a nuclear bomb.
Over the years, a variety of legislation has been enacted to expand the scope of operations of the JSDF. The Regional Affairs Law of 1999 allowed Japan to provide “rear support” to the USA if it became involved in regional conflicts, even if Japan hadn’t been directly attacked. After 9/11, the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law was enacted to provide logistical support to US
and other armed forces engaged in anti-terrorist operations across the world. In 2003, 9,600 Japanese personnel were dispatched to Iraq to carry out reconstruction and humanitarian activities. This deployment was particularly controversial; the Nagoya Supreme Court in 2008 passed a non-binding ruling stating the mission was in violation of Article 9, specifically citing the transport of other countries’ combat personnel to battle zones by Japanese planes as a military activity.
Militarisation kicked into a new gear after Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister in 2012. In 2014, Abe’s government implemented a significant overhaul of defence-related legislation. Most consequentially, the government broadened the scope of forceful self-defence to when a close ally of Japan had been attacked in a manner that posed an existential threat to Japan itself. This significantly expanded the range of situations in which the JSDF could go to war – prior to this, force could be used only if Japan itself had been attacked.
Symbolic of Abe’s commitment to a more muscular security policy was the conversion of two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to conventional fixed-wing aircraft carriers in 2018. This ended the long-held interpretation that aircraft carriers were offensive weapons, and as such prohibited to the JSDF. The government was fully aware of the optics of this move; there were intense debates in parliament over what to call the converted vessels, with terms like “defensive aircraft carrier” being proposed to avoid the constitutional prohibition on offensive weapons. Finally, the term “multi-purpose destroyer” was officially adopted.
The 2022 National Security Strategy
The first edition of Japan’s National Security Strategy was published in 2013. Then, North Korea was identified as the primary threat to Japan, while China and Russia were described as “strategic partners.” The new NSS takes a radically different stance; China is now termed the “greatest strategic challenge to ensuring the peace and security of Japan.” Chinese efforts to unilaterally change through force the status quo in the South and East China Seas, as well as the possibility of a conflict erupting over Taiwan, are highlighted as potential flashpoints for a China-Japan conflict.
Russia’s extensive strategic cooperation with China, including carrying out joint military drills near Japan, and its strengthening of its forces in its Northern Territories bordering Japan are pointed out as inimical to Japanese security. The Strategy document notes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that it is not above using force to achieve its aims. The Ukraine invasion had another important consequence: Japanese officials realised that Ukraine received significant help from its allies only after it demonstrated a robust capability to defend itself – in the words of the expert panel advising PM Kishida, “demonstrating that we will defend our country ourselves is essential to maintaining the unwavering confidence of allies.”
Finally, the document reiterates that North Korea poses a continuing threat to Japan. North Korea’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles that can target Japan with nuclear warheads make it a clear peril to Japan.
On the diplomatic frontier, the NSS commits Japan to the India-US-Japan-Australia Quad Partnership. It describes Taiwan as an “extremely important partner” and South Korea, (with whom Japanese relationships have been historically frosty, notwithstanding common security interests) as a “highly important neighbouring country.” By committing to an alliance with Taiwan, Japan has made clear that it regards China as its primary foe – one that cannot be dealt with through conciliation. However, the document does state that it will seek to develop mutually beneficial economic relations with China – in other words, induce economic dependencies in China that will make it unprofitable for it to go to war with Japan.
Beyond the reconfiguration of Japan’s strategic opponents and allies, the most dramatic change imposed by the NSS is in the realm of defence spending. For decades, Japan has maintained a
self-imposed restriction on defence spending to 1% of the national GDP. The current defence budget is $37 billion annually; the NSS seeks to increase this over the next five years till it reaches a sum of $80 billion per year – more than 2% of GDP. This will catapult Japan from the ninth-largest defence spender in the world, to the third-largest.
Part of the increase will be accompanied by simply re-classifying as defence spending certain expenditures not previously called so. This includes aspects like the Coast Guard and public infrastructure that can be repurposed for defence purposes in times of crisis. Beyond this, the strategy document highlights several new areas for defence spending. These include counterstrike capabilities, cyberwarfare, space security, and public-private partnerships for the development of defence technology.
Counterstrike represents a fundamentally novel capability for Japan. By giving itself the ability to strike back at strategic targets on the home territory of any aggressor nation, Japan is trying to increase its deterrence value. In the long-term, Japan seeks to develop and use indigenous cruise missiles, but to provide counterstrike in the interim, it will seek to purchase up to 1,000 US Tomahawk cruise missiles – these have a range of 1,600 km, sufficient to reach targets in North Korea and China. And despite the repeated assertions in the NSS that these weapons will be used within the conditions of self-defence, their inherently offensive nature cannot be denied; it was with good reason that the JSDF was prohibited from acquiring long-range missiles until today.
The defence industry represents another important area for investment. In order to boost the indigenous defence industry and reduce its reliance on American weapons, Japan will subsidize defence-related projects. At the same time, it will enter a joint-project with Britain and Italy to develop a next-generation fighter jet to enter service by the 2030s. Finally, in order to strengthen allies throughout the Indo-Pacific Region, restrictions on the export of defence technology (which currently, for example, constrain weapons transfers to Ukraine) will be loosened.
A lesson learnt from the war in Ukraine is that modern war leads to immensely high rates of consumption of materiel, hence reserves must be concomitantly large. Hence, a significant
portion of Japan’s spending will go towards strengthening the overall resilience of the JSDF by increasing stocks of munitions and fuel, and upgrading their transportation and storage systems. Another important lesson, particularly for an inherently defensive force, is that increasing the survivability of your strategic infrastructure is key to surviving an offensive first strike. In Ukraine, Ukrainian pilots were trained to fly their aircraft from civilian highways in case Russian strikes damaged the highly visible military runways; Japan’s NSS takes a page out of this book by proposing the expansion of civilian airports so they can handle military aircraft. This will ensure that at least some aerial capability will survive an enemy first strike.
The proposals outlined in the 2022 NSS represent Japan’s biggest militarisation effort since the Second World War. Predictably, they have been greeted enthusiastically by strategic partners like the USA; the US ambassador to Japan described them as a “tremendous milestone” in US Japanese relations. What is new is the support amongst the general public; one survey by the national broadcaster NHK revealed 55% support for increased defence spending, and only 29% opposition. This is in stark contrast to the situation in 2015, when thousands gathered outside parliament to protest Abe’s military legislation.
The biggest unanswered question with regard to the NSS is where the funds for the increased spending will come from – the aforementioned NHK survey cited 61% of respondents as favouring cuts in public spending, as opposed to tax hikes. The reaction of Japan’s opponents also remains to be seen: will China, North Korea and Russia be deterred into backing off, or provoked into further militarisation? Whatever the outcome, Japan has boldly stated its intent to assume its most muscular role yet in the new world order.
About the Author
Swapnil Ghose is a first-year student at Ashoka University. As a prospective Political Science major and IR minor, his interests lie in military history and conflict studies, particularly that of the Middle East.
Image Source: https://theconversation.com/japans-change-in-military-outlook-marks-the-end-of-a-peace-state-68864