Japan scraps pacifist postwar defence strategy to counter China threat

Japan will overturn six decades of postwar security policy and arm itself with one of the world’s largest defence budgets to counter “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge” posed by China’s rising military aggression.

In a new national security strategy released on Friday, its first in almost a decade, Tokyo laid out its ambitions to play a more active role in regional security, saying it would “achieve a new balance in international relations” by working more closely with the US and its allies to achieve “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

“Japan’s security environment is as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of [the second world war],” the strategy, which will be executed over the coming decade, said. “We will fundamentally reinforce defence capabilities as the last guarantee of national security.” 

Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan has adopted a more aggressive stance in forging deeper security ties with allies beyond the US, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the risk of a similar conflict in Taiwan.

But its decision to acquire counter-strike capabilities, outlined in three critical security-related documents presented on Friday, marks Japan’s most significant departure from the pacifist stance grounded in its war-renouncing constitution and is likely to draw a strong response from China.

“One year ago, it would have been unthinkable for Japan to possess the capability to directly attack another country’s territory or to secure a budget to acquire such capability,” said Tetsuo Kotani, senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “By witnessing the invasion of Ukraine, the general public began to have a more realistic view of our security issue and it made it easier for the government to take action.”

Over the next five years, Tokyo plans to spend ¥43tn ($313bn) to strengthen its defence capabilities, bringing military expenditure to roughly 2 per cent of its current gross domestic product, matching Nato’s target for member states. Since the 1960s, Japan has maintained a self-imposed cap on military spending of about 1 per cent of GDP.

The budget includes ¥5tn to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US, expand the range of its domestic surface-to-ship cruise missiles and develop hypersonic weapons, according to the medium-term defence programme. Another ¥3tn will be spent on enhancing integrated air and missile defence capabilities, including a radar upgrade for the Patriot missile system to counter hypersonic weapons.

Roughly ¥2tn will be allocated to strengthening Japan’s space and cyber defence capabilities, an area of weakness that US officials have repeatedly pressed Tokyo to address. It will create a 20,000-strong cyber team within the Self-Defense Force, as the country’s military is known, and the defence ministry to prevent cyber attacks before they occur.

The largest portion of the military spending, ¥15tn, will be designated to strengthening the SDF’s basic needs including ammunition stockpiles and fuel tanks, reflecting concerns that Japan’s armed forces will not have the capability to persevere in a prolonged conflict such as one over Taiwan.

In addition to expanding defence capabilities, Japan will also create a framework outside its official development assistance programme that will allow it to provide funding to strengthen maritime capabilities and military-related infrastructure in south-east Asian countries.

Noting rising concerns about stability in the Taiwan Strait, the strategy said: “China’s current external stance and military activities . . . present an unprecedented and greatest strategic challenge in ensuring peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community”.

It also said North Korea’s repeated missile launches and progress in its weapons capabilities posed “an even more grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security than ever before”.

Even with an expanded budget, which is expected to be financed via tax increases, a large gap will remain between Japan and China in terms of military capability.

But Ken Jimbo, an international security expert at Keio University, said Tokyo’s counter-strike ability would complicate calculations for Chinese policymakers and Beijing’s operational capability if it were to invade Taiwan.

“The counter-strike capability is of course important for Japan’s own defence, but it will also significantly raise the costs for China if it were to attempt a change in status quo,” Jimbo said, adding that tensions with China, North Korea and Russia were likely to increase.

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