What Japan’s security strategy means for Australia
21 Jul 2022|

As Canberra moves into ever-closer alignment with Tokyo through their ‘special strategic partnership’, it’s timely to examine exactly what the security strategy of our key partner now looks like, and identify ways in which we can mutually support one another across a range of activities aimed at responding to regional challenges and upholding the rules-based international order.

The tragic death of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July has brought renewed focus to the prolific contribution he made to charting a new course for Japan during his term of office. As early as 2013, Abe proclaimed in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC that ‘Japan is back!’ During his long second tenure in office, which ended in 2020, he did his best to deliver on that promise and carve out a far more prominent role for Japan as a security actor under the banner of a ‘proactive contribution to international peace’. He presided over a quiet transformation of Japan’s security strategy, supercharging a process begun by his predecessors, and one which now continues to unfold under his successors.

Understanding Japan’s security strategy requires a look at how Tokyo perceives the regional security environment in the Indo-Pacific, and the challenges that policymakers in Japan face. In essence, the outlook is rather bleak. Japan hasn’t experienced such a potentially hostile landscape since the end of the Cold War. Today, the Indo-Pacific is marked by China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, underlined by a considerable Chinese military build-up; North Korean nuclear and missile testing; and Russian air patrols circling the Japanese archipelago. These essential dangers are further multiplied by Sino-Russian cooperation (including military exercises), married with acute competition over the acquisition of emerging disruptive technologies (such as cyber, electromagnetic and hypersonic capabilities), which can be applied to ‘hybrid’ or ‘grey-zone’ conflicts as well as high-intensity military operations. Australia shares all of these concerns with differing degrees of convergence or intensity.

As I explain in a new ASPI report, launched today, to meet this veritable panoply of challenges to regional stability, Tokyo has progressively crafted a well-defined and well-articulated security strategy. It can be understood by focusing on several dimensions, which are working in tandem to reshape Japan’s security identity.

The first of these is a new and revitalised diplomatic role for Japan, chiefly taking its expression through the ‘vision’ of a free and open Indo-Pacific. This concept was first unveiled in 2016 and has since been adopted, with variations, by the US, India and Australia. It aims to shape the regional order by focusing on three interlocking pillars: the rule of law, economic prosperity, and peace and stability. What is particularly noteworthy about the concept is how it represents a major initiative to stake out a renewed leadership role for itself in the region. No longer content to simply follow and support the broader US-led liberal international order, Japan has emerged as an entrepreneur and architect of regional order in its own right, even if the vision is designed to be implemented with allies and partners, such as Australia, playing a strong part.

To better provide for its own security, Japan has reformed its domestic security apparatus and strengthened its defence architecture.

One of the abiding constraints on Japan’s security role has always been domestic legislation, often relating to the 1947 ‘peace constitution’ (which remains firmly in place). In light of practical realities, Tokyo has progressively put in place the necessary legal instruments—most prominently with the 2015 peace and security legislation—to play a more proactive role and facilitate meaningful cooperation with partners. This builds upon earlier efforts to centralise control of security affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister (Kantei) and National Security Secretariat, with a dedicated national security adviser.

The government has also sought to streamline its cumbersome bureaucracy through a more responsive and efficient defence architecture that breaks down administrative barriers between service branches to create a more unified command posture. This includes strengthening of the Joint Staff Office, as well as efforts to streamline its defence procurement processes. If the proposed defence budget increase from 1% to 2% of GDP occurs, Japan’s defence architecture will be transformed even further.

Another central element in this is Tokyo’s aspiration to restructure the Japan Self-Defense Forces into a ‘multi-domain defence force’ harnessing new capabilities in the cyber, space and electromagnetic domains to ensure it is fit to meet the challenges of 21st-century conflict. Especially notable in this process are the acquisition of strike capabilities—long-range missiles (cruise, hypersonic) that can hit enemy bases to forestall ballistic missile attacks on Japan—and the beefing up of local air superiority. Such capabilities are projected to be distributed across all of the service branches, and to contribute to national missile defence, in addition to an obvious deterrent function. Japan’s efforts towards an enhanced strike capability also provide valuable lessons for Australia as well as opening up the possibility of defence technological collaboration in this sphere (through the 2014 defence technology cooperation agreement).

But Japan realises that it cannot go it alone, however successful its diplomacy or however much it improves its military defences.

Tokyo therefore puts a premium on revitalising its pivotal defence alliance with the US, while at the same time consolidating a range of new ‘strategic partnerships’ with other like-minded countries.

Japan is committed to bolstering its alliance with the US to improve their combined crisis response through an allied coordination mechanism. That may assist in addressing the pressing need for a more interoperable alliance posture—one which extends to ground and air forces, building on the already well-established navy-to-navy relationship.

Beyond the alliance, Japan has entered into cooperative security relations with Australia, India, the UK, the EU and a range of Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. The nature of cooperation varies, but the essential aim is to build a network of partners across the region that share Japan’s security concerns and are willing to contribute to a common front in resisting regional challenges, especially in the maritime domain. Further reinforcement of such bilateral partnerships also occurs minilaterally through key mechanisms such as the Japan–US–Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and the Quad.

All of this matters to Australia, and, indeed, has been warmly welcomed among the strategic community. Since Australia shares deep concern about the deterioration in the regional security environment, policymakers have generally applauded Japan’s willingness to take on a stronger role, including the development of its defence capabilities, thus allowing it to make a greater contribution to regional stability and deterrence.

Tokyo’s championing of the free and open Indo-Pacific vision closely addresses many of the strategic concerns held in Canberra, and the two countries’ special strategic partnership provides the means for them to jointly address challenges to the rules-based order. Japan’s openness to cooperate with Australia as a privileged strategic partner is also seen in the recent reciprocal access agreement and the increased tempo of cooperation across a spectrum of areas, including economic and cybersecurity dialogues, information sharing, joint exercises and a united diplomatic front.

The transformation of the Japan–Australia relationship, especially since the dark days of World War II, is a remarkable achievement and testament to the leadership of Abe and a succession of Australian counterparts. Japan’s revitalised role as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific creates further scope for deepening bilateral and minilateral cooperation in the years ahead.