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Wary of China, Japan unveils sweeping new national security strategy

Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces stand in formation during a review at Camp Asaka in Tokyo on Nov. 27, 2021. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News)
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TOKYO — Japan on Friday unveiled sweeping changes to its national security strategy and a major ramp-up of its defense budget, a dramatic shift to shed its longtime postwar pacifist constraints as it grapples with increasing security threats and risk of war in the Indo-Pacific.

Wary of the growing military threat posed by China, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Japan is poised to take a tougher stance to defend itself and improve its capabilities to do so.

Among the notable changes is the move to acquire “counterstrike” capabilities, or the ability to hit enemy bases with long-range missiles and coordinate with the United States in such circumstances, and an increase of its defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product over five years, making it the third-largest in the world.

“Each and every one of us must have the awareness that we are protecting our country. This is very important, as we have learned from Ukraine,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a news conference Friday. “We are now at a turning point of our national security policy.”

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a catalyst for the groundswell of changes to Japan’s national security and defense posture that were unthinkable even earlier this year.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed the Japanese that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan could be a reality, jolting the public into awareness and growing support for Japan to take steps to improve its defense capabilities.

The new strategy documents released Friday do not name China directly as a threat, but say Beijing’s diplomatic posture and military activities are of “serious concern” and present an unprecedented “greatest strategic challenge” to ensuring peace in Japan and the international community. Japanese officials say they still aim for a “constructive and stable relationship” with China through communication at various levels.

In August, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taipei, an outraged Beijing carried out aggressive military drills near Taiwan, including the launch of ballistic missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. This comes on top of multiple incursions by sea and air in the waters surrounding Japan.

Meanwhile, over the past year North Korea has tested an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles as it pursues its nuclear weapons program, even sending one over Japan for the first time in five years.

Russia’s invasion prompts more assertive foreign policy from Japan

Japanese officials have concluded that current capabilities are insufficient, Kishida said.

Japan aims to improve its long-range strike capability with both Japan-made long-range weapons and imported foreign ones, such as U.S.-built Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Japan’s defense policy will remain defense-oriented, and counterstrikes will only be used under certain limited conditions, according to the documents. The new strategy does not allow for preemptive strikes.

The new strategy documents noted that countries surrounding Japan have made major advances in missile-related technologies in both qualitative and quantitative ways. Missile attacks against Japan are now a “palpable threat,” and Japan needs capabilities beyond existing ballistic missile defenses to protect itself, it said. Japan considers counterstrike capabilities a potentially powerful conventional deterrent.

Over the next decade, Japan aims to develop capabilities that make it “possible to disrupt and defeat invasions against its nation much earlier and at a further distance,” according to the strategy.

Japan will increase defense personnel and strengthen the core capabilities of its Self-Defense Forces, according to the strategy documents released, as well as improve its capabilities in space and cybersecurity.

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The Biden administration has welcomed Japan’s moves as part of a deepening alliance that bolsters the U.S. strategy of regional cooperation to enhance security. Other aspects of that strategy include a deal involving the United States and Britain helping Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines and lifting limits on South Korea building ballistic missiles.

Kishida “has put a capital ‘D’ next to Japan’s deterrence,” said U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel in a statement. “The Prime Minister is making a clear, unambiguous strategic statement about Japan’s role as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific. He has enhanced Japan’s standing in service of its diplomatic and political engagement with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe.”

Japan has also been diversifying its security partnerships with countries in the region and in Europe, as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen its relationships with like-minded countries trying to counter China’s rise.

How Japan will pay for the new strategy is under debate. Kishida said Friday that three-quarters of the funding can come in by reallocating current expenditures to defense. The rest will come in through taxes on a mix of corporate, tobacco and disaster-reconstruction income, said the prime minister, who has faced criticism for passing on some of the new defense spending to taxpayers.