On Friday, Japan released its new national security strategy, which the Financial Times characterizes as overturning “six decades of postwar security policy and arm[ing] itself with one of the world’s largest defense budgets to counter ‘an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge’ posed by China’s military aggression.” And, one might add, to counter the mixed signals that the Biden administration has been sending to China about “engagement” and “competition.” Japan’s dramatic move is a response to China’s threat and Biden’s weakness.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who announced the new strategy at a press conference in Tokyo, said that the unstable security environment around Japan requires upgrading Japan’s military capabilities to deter threats to his country and the broader Indo-Pacific region. The new strategy pledged to work with “allies and like-minded countries to ensure peace and stability in the region” and included among those allies the United States, India, England, Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia.
Japan’s new strategy, the first since 2013, was set forth in three documents — the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program. The strategy calls for Japan to boost defense spending to $314 billion (43 trillion yen) between 2023 and 2027 and includes the planned acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles, the development of hypersonic weapons, and the enhancement of air and missile defense capabilities and space and cyber defense programs. This will give Japan the capability to strike targets inside China and North Korea.
Nikkei Asia notes that Japan’s action highlights “the need for Japan to build an independent system of defense that is not solely reliant on the U.S. military.” That is a diplomatic way of saying that Japan lacks confidence in the Biden administration’s approach to China, which has consisted of the president’s statements that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion/attack and of White House “clarifications” intended to “walk back” the president’s statements. Sadamasa Oue in the Japan Times similarly opines that the decision to implement the new strategy was based in part on Japan’s view that the United States is in “relative decline” and rife with domestic political divisions. Japanese leaders, Oue notes, realize that Japan cannot wholly rely on the United States for its defense and for ensuring stability in the region. Japan, Oue writes, “must … build a strategy to defend itself proactively and drastically boost its defense capabilities.” And Politico reports that at the heart of the new strategy is “a genuine fear about the crumbling order in Asia and the world more broadly.” And that crumbling order in Asia can be traced to a post–Cold War policy inertia that clung to the hope that engaging with China would transform the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into a “rules-based” nation willing to join a U.S.-led world order.
Kishida’s approach builds on policies promoted by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who repeatedly called on Japan and the United States to end the policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. The Trump administration in its 2018 National Defense Strategy shifted the U.S. focus from small peripheral wars to the emerging great-power rivalry with China and Russia. And while Biden has continued some of the Trump administration’s confrontational rhetoric toward China, he has not sufficiently supported the rhetoric with force deployments to ease the fears of Japan’s leaders.
Biden administration spokespersons praised Kishida’s announcement of the new strategy, as did members of Congress, seemingly unaware that Japan’s new strategy is designed in part to make up for U.S. deficiencies. Ironically, it was Donald Trump who vigorously called on America’s allies in both Europe and Asia to provide more for their own defense — an approach for which he received unrestrained criticism from Democrats and the foreign-policy establishment. The allies — first Germany and now Japan — have responded, though not as a result of Trump’s urging but instead as a reaction to China’s increased aggressiveness in the face of perceived U.S. decline. Japan’s new strategy shows the prescience of Edward Luttwak, who, in The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, predicted that China’s aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific would eventually solidify and strengthen U.S. alliances in the region. U.S. regional security in the western Pacific will benefit from Japan’s new strategy not because of Biden’s policies but in spite of them.