Japan’s first National Security Strategy
15 Jan 2014|

Takeshima islands

Last month, the Japanese government released the country’s first National Security Strategy (NSS). For Australia, this strategy is of considerable interest now that Japan’s seen as our ‘best friend in Asia’ and a strong ally. To others, the document is important given ongoing disputes between Japan and China. It covers a range of issues, but China clearly dominates current Japanese security thinking and is really what the NSS is all about.

Like its American equivalent (PDF), the Japanese NSS adopts a grand strategy approach. The ‘ends’ sought are to stop China from changing the present international order in Northeast Asia. The ‘way’ is a denial grand strategy that tries to shift the relative power balance to be more in Japan’s favour. The ‘means’ are through a whole-of-government approach that favours the diplomatic, military and informational instruments of national power. In terms of resourcing, the NSS stresses building legitimacy and strengthening Japan’s soft power.

In the diplomatic arena, the NSS seeks stronger alliances and partnerships with pretty much everybody—especially those further abroad like the US, Australia, ASEAN, India and the EU. The NSS considers: ‘it is necessary to enhance diplomatic creativity and negotiating power to deepen the understanding of and garner support for Japan’s position….’ In other words, the relentless Japanese charm offensive will continue!

Militarily, the NSS has guided the development of a subordinate defence strategy (PDF) that aims to deter others through having adequate military strength to repulse any likely attacks. In several respects this has many conceptual similarities to Paul Dibb’s 1986 deterrence by denial proposal. His credible low-level contingencies are for Japan ‘gray-zone’ situations of which China’s present coercive diplomacy over the disputed Senkaku Islands is preeminent. Also reminiscent, the solution (PDF, pp.3–14) is seen as developing a sophisticated wide-area Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) system to detect sea and air intruders and then to respond to them through achieving localised air superiority and command of the sea. In the worse case scenario, amphibious land forces would ‘land, recapture and secure without delay’ any remote islands lost.

Japan’s first NSS has some notable strengths and is well-thought out. But success hinges on building greater relative power. In this, the grand strategy has some real shortcomings.

Japan has limited ability to significantly increase defence spending. Implementing a new grand strategy requires giving up some less-relevant capabilities to free up resources for force structure adjustments. Given the NSS’s guidance, the obvious candidate is the size of the land forces to fund naval and air improvements but this appears a step too far.

In the Cold War, the Army’s mission was to repulse several Soviet Divisions invading the northern island of Hokkaido and was accordingly sized at some 160,000 personnel. While the NSS postulates a very different threat, the Army remains 160,000 strong and with a posture little changed from the Cold War. This reticence to change an outdated force structure might suggest limited governmental and bureaucratic support for the NSS.

In a similar vein, America is considered crucial to the NSS but in some respects Japan’s actions signal otherwise. While the US has some 50,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, the NSS supports reducing this number by some 9,000 (almost 20%). There are multiple reasons for this pullback but continuing Japanese enthusiasm for cutting local US forces suggests Japan is actually less concerned about China than the NSS declares.

Another significant shortcoming in the NSS concerns its near-neighbour South Korea. Like Japan, South Korea is a strong US ally threatened by North Korea and worried about China. Even so, Japan appears unwilling to develop a relationship with South Korea of a kind that could help advance its grand strategy. Somewhat unhelpfully, the NSS brings up Takeshima, an island claimed by Japan but held currently by South Korea. Japan also has island disputes with Russia and Taiwan. Japan’s reluctance to resolve these multiple disagreements means Japan can’t bring these nations on-board with its grand strategy. This further suggests Japan isn’t fully committed to meeting the stated Chinese challenge and there are apparently more important issues.

The NSS also avoids making full use of economic instruments. A common method of enmeshing other nations more closely and making them more concerned about your problems is through developing deeper and broader economic relations. While the NSS makes cursory mention of possible future free trade agreements, there is much more that could be done. Japan’s clinging to its customary neo-mercantilist approach may be rather unhelpful to the NSS’ success.

Success for a denial grand strategy comes with some caveats. In such an approach, war is a legitimate way of solving disputes, hence the emphasis placed on military measures. However, a war with China would seem something any Japanese NSS should be trying very hard to avoid. But this type of NSS doesn’t do that.

Instead, denial grand strategies seek a negative goal. They can usefully hold the line until something better comes along but they don’t solve the underlying problems. In Japan’s case, the desire to cling to the status quo international order is understandable but may not be the best objective. Given a rising China, it may be more realistic to devise an NSS that attempts to deliberately construct a favourable new regional order. Embracing change may be difficult, but ultimately more sensible.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.