Pressure from an increasingly aggressive China and the example of Russia’s war on Ukraine have driven rapid changes in the views of Japan’s people on defence and military cooperation with nations such as Australia.
Launching a new ASPI report, Japan’s security strategy, Ambassador Shingo Yamagami said attitudes in his country had shifted very significantly in recent years.
That view was reflected strongly by the report’s author, ASPI senior fellow Thomas Wilkins.
The two were joined at the launch by Australian National University professor Rikki Kersten, an expert on modern Japanese history who has focused extensively on foreign policy, security policy, the US–Japan alliance and Australia–Japan relations.
Yamagami said that as a diplomat and a national security professional he’d spent the best part of his career examining how Japan could better defend itself against external and internal challenges. ‘Japan has witnessed an increasingly severe security situation, partly as a result of the emergence of a new and more belligerent regional power, coupled with events in Europe.’
Aware of their longstanding defence and security relationship with the United States, many Japanese people spent decades in what the ambassador called ‘a relatively benign state of awareness’ about their nation’s security and the threats from beyond its borders. That allowed Japan to concentrate primarily on economic recovery and growth following the devastation of World War II, while providing the US with bases for the defence of Japan and the peace and security of the region.
In time, Japan’s economy gathered strength to the point where it supported the economic development of many countries, including Australia and China.
‘Yet the legacy of the war years, which led to the loss of 3.1 million Japanese lives, still lingered deep within the national psyche of the Japanese,’ Yamagami said. Having been brought to the edge of the abyss, there was a strong, almost a visceral reluctance to become engaged in any activity that might resemble a proactive defence stance.
Only after lengthy constitutional legal arguments were Japan’s first peacekeepers deployed in 1990 to Cambodia where they worked in tandem with the Australian Defence Force, he said. Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces were deployed to the Middle East after the first Gulf War in 1991.
Over a decade later, challenges to Japan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by an increasingly assertive China, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the attempts of China and Russia to undermine the rule of law accelerated a shift in Japan’s collective mindset towards an active, dynamic national security doctrine, Yamagami said.
‘Some might say that what was once considered a glacial change in mindset, as in negative terms, jumped to light speed in the wake of Russia’s egregious and brutal invasion of Ukraine.’
That was borne out by public opinion polls supporting the provision of non-lethal defence equipment to Ukraine and adopting more proactive activities abroad. In May, a majority of respondents to an NHK poll said they agreed with Japan possessing counter-strike capabilities and increasing its defence spending. This remarkable change in mindset was reflected in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government agreeing to a substantial increase in the defence budget and fundamentally reinforcing defence capabilities.
‘What has happened to Ukraine has come as a stark reminder of how deterrence must be used to defend the national interest and uphold territorial integrity, sovereignty and the rule of law,’ Yamagami said. Such changes meant that Japan’s forces could now legally help protect Australian and US naval vessels in a conflict.
Yet, said Yamagami, Japan also knew it could not ensure its security by force of arms alone. ‘It has presented an ambitious vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific in which each and every member enjoys security and prosperity.’
Japan revived and had been a driving force in promoting the Quad arrangement with Australia, the US and India, with new initiatives in maritime domain awareness, climate change, disaster relief, cyberspace and infrastructure announced.
‘Japan has been blessed by the strong support Australia has shown in building defence ties with us over the past decade, which recently culminated in the reciprocal access agreement. This is the first such agreement that Japan has signed with any country and is a mark of the respect and trust in which we hold our special strategic partner Australia.’
There was an expectation that the bilateral defence relationship would become a lot more active with much more exercise activity.
The ambassador said that with changes in Japan’s strategic thinking, it was making a much larger, much more dynamic and much more ambitious contribution to regional and global security than at any time since World War II, and ‘when change comes, it is permanent and irreversible’.
The world, he said, stood at a precipice and faced choices between protecting the rule of law or submitting to the law of the jungle. ‘Japan is actively working to keep the beast at bay with the help of like-minded and law-abiding residents of the global village.’
Wilkins outlined the three key elements of Japan’s security strategy covered in detail in his report— diplomacy through the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, domestic mobilisation of its security apparatus and defence forces, and the strengthening of alliances and partnerships. ‘The Japan–Australia partnership is a valuable joint mechanism for diplomatic, security, defence, economic and military coordination to the benefit of both parties,’ he said.
The ideal of a free and open Indo-Pacific had been adopted or engaged with by the US, Australia and Asian nations, and stood out as a successful example of Tokyo’s new entrepreneurship in regional order building.
Tokyo recognised that to support this vision in tandem with allies, partners and other willing states, as well as to safeguard its own national security, it must do more.
‘Though Japan remains committed to an exclusively defensive military posture, it has sought to meet intensified regional challenges through the creation of a multi-domain defence force.’
Japan had steadily worked to craft a purposeful and multi-layered security strategy that would permit Tokyo to shape the regional order in line with its values and interests, enhance national and regional deterrence, and allow better responses to regional contingencies, Wilkins said.
‘Much of the credit for this significant achievement should be accorded to the late prime minister [Shinzo] Abe.’
Kersten acknowledged the changes in Japanese policy development but suggested that the nation still embraced a culture of self-constraint. ‘Even former prime minister Abe, with his incredible policy ambition, had to buckle to reality and resort to the self-imposed constraint that attaches to every single Japanese security policy.’
There clearly remained in Japan a gap between policy ambition and public opinion, Kersten said.
Yamagami responded by repeating that public opinion in Japan—’what Japan stands for’—was shifting in response to what was happening in the East China Sea and Ukraine.
Wilkins made the point that Japan had made very sensible and incremental rational responses to a rapidly changing environment. By taking those steps with other nations, Tokyo had provided reassurance that Japan was not just going out there on its own in a very radical or unpredictable direction.
Yamagami said he expected to see a greater exchange of military personnel between Japan and Australia. ‘We would like to welcome more ADF personnel to Japanese bases and we would like to see more Japan Self-Defense Forces personnel coming down to Australia. This will certainly serve as a strong deterrent.’
Kersten said ‘the most astonishing thing’ about the positive trajectory of the Australia–Japan security partnership was that it was trust-based. ‘It’s not utilitarian. We don’t have a strong trading partner who we’re trying to keep happy with a nice little security ribbon tied on top. The relationship had overcome a wartime past that was tough to overcome. It’s not just about trade, it’s not just about security; it’s political, it’s cultural and all these other things are enmeshed together.’
Kersten said Japan and Australia were increasingly collaborative in regional multilateral settings. ‘They came to the table with joint principles and values and objectives and worked together to achieve a jointly desired outcome.’
In terms of where the Japan–Australia relationship could go, Yamagami emphasised the importance of involving the private sector in areas such as biometrics, artificial intelligence and cyber technology—areas where Japanese companies are world-leading and always on the lookout for opportunities in Australia, also involving the US.
Kersten said a renewed joint security declaration should include a clear statement of intent to involve relevant private-sector entities in the joint enterprise of security. ‘This would mark out the new joint declaration as more than just a feel-good anniversary event. It would actually mean something then.’
Wilkins said Japan had much to offer in developing standoff and strike capabilities. ‘That might be something to think about given the shortage of stockpiles that we all face.’
Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.
This article was published by ASPI on July 22, 2022.