Japan signals more robust security posture in new defence white paper

Japan’s new defence white paper, Defense of Japan 2021, affirms Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s continuation of his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s proactive contribution to regional peace and security.

Stemming from a desire to counter any trend towards a norm of ‘might is right’ in the region, the white paper must be seen in the context of broader diplomatic efforts by Japan to champion a rules-based order. This is exemplified by its vision for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, first introduced in 2016, which has three ‘pillars’: rule of law, economic prosperity, and peace and stability. The 2021 white paper is designed to support each of these objectives.

The new white paper has been warmly received by allies and partners in Washington and Canberra, but has drawn predictable denunciation from Beijing, particularly for its stance on Taiwan and the explicit statement that ‘Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community’. Xi Jinping’s reiteration of his desire to achieve ‘national reunification’ in his speech at the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party, along with the US Indo-Pacific Command’s warning that a conflict could break out within the next six years, have alarmed Japanese policymakers.

Noting the shifting military balance in the Taiwan Strait, as well as in the region as a whole, in China’s favour, the white paper states that Japan must ‘pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before’.

Though Japan has maintained warm, if low-key, relations with Taipei, it has traditionally eschewed overt support for the beleaguered island democracy. The 2021 white paper signals a significant policy change. This comes on top of slightly overwrought comments by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, a long-time supporter of Taiwan, who said that ‘Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together’ if China mounts an invasion of the island. The remarks were later retracted, and both Tokyo and Washington recited their pro forma commitments to the ‘One China’ principle. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the mood in Tokyo, as in Washington, has shifted towards increased support for Taipei, not least because of the sympathies of some of Japan’s policymakers in Japan at present, including not only Aso but also Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi.

The white paper also addresses the related issue of Chinese assertiveness towards Japan directly, backed by ever-expanding military power. Japan bears the brunt of this in the East China Sea in the waters around the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyudao (and Taiwan as the Diaoyutai)). The document notes that ‘China has relentlessly continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands, leading to a grave matter of concern’. Typical of the grey-zone tactics brought to bear in this maritime space are the incessant incursions of China Coast Guard vessels into territorial waters. The white paper expresses consternation at China’s recent coastguard law, which it claims is inconsistent with international law, especially in the authorised use of weapons.

The white paper discusses a range of other ongoing security concerns, with North Korea’s continued nuclear bellicosity salient among them, but also touches on environmental challenges and the response to natural disasters.

But it is more than mere talk. To support Japan’s more proactive role in regional diplomacy and security, the white paper showcases recent developments in Japanese defence technology, especially in the new domains of space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. This is backed by defence budget increases for nine years running.

Japan has invested in defence collaboration with other countries for the development of game-changing military technologies, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, quantum technology and 5G. Notably, the white paper highlights the development of standoff missile as a strike capability, often described as the ‘Japanese Tomahawk’. Yet, it’s important to stress that in accordance with domestic and international legal frameworks they can’t be used for a pre-emptive strike.

The white paper also recognises that regional security challenges ‘cannot be dealt with by a single country alone’. In addition to a significant effort to better mobilise its defence capabilities and diplomatic strengths, key to Japan’s regional posture is the support of other significant players in the region. The longstanding alliance with the US, which Japan is actively strengthening, provides a major fillip, due not only to the military power and influence it carries, but also to the diplomatic support that the US has afforded to Tokyo through its own adoption of the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Australia, too, has been a de facto supporter of this principle, and Canberra’s ‘special strategic partnership’ with Tokyo continues to be augmented. The Japanese ambassador to Australia, Shingo Yamagami, recently made overtures to Canberra about engaging Australian support for Japan’s predicament in the East China Sea. India is another country that Japan looks to in its bid to uphold the regional order, and the partnering process is brought together in the alignment of the four countries through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Criticism of the new white paper has been quick to emerge, with Beijing diplomatic and media outlets seizing on the Taiwan statements. Criticism has also extended to the presentation of the document, particularly the decision to put a ‘warlike’ image of an equestrian samurai on the cover, perhaps in a bid to resurrect perceptions of Japan’s prior militarism.

Nevertheless, as a response to the intensifying strategic competition in the region and Japan’s perception that its security environment is further deteriorating, the white paper provides firm evidence of the Suga administration’s determination to uphold national interests and the regional rules-based order through a combination of proactive diplomacy, internal mobilisation and enhanced collaboration with allies and partners.