Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.02.28

Is Japan’s counterstrike capability a departure from its post-WWII pacifism?

Tokyo mulls altering the nation's defense-oriented security posture amid growing military threats

the Japan Times on December 13, 2022

The U.S.A.

WASHINGTON – While on a recent trip to Washington, I spoke at a joint webinar by the Stimson Center and Canon Institute for Global Studies think tanks — the latter of which I belong to.

Since Japanese media had already started reporting en masse about expectations for the nation’s three most important national security documents, I dedicated some time on Japan’s new defense posture.

As expected, the tone of the Japanese liberal media is very harsh. An editorial from the Asahi Shimbun said on Dec. 2 that “Japan must not rush to gut its purely defensive security policy,” and that the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities “will effectively make a radical departure from its strictly defensive security policy principle for the postwar period.” The Mainichi Shimbun, another liberal daily, echoed on Dec. 3 that “It will lead to the deformation of the exclusive defensive posture.”

Keeping such arguments in mind, I first explained to the webinar audience the reported key points from the revisions to the National Security Strategy and two other official documents, which are to be finalized by the end of this year.

First, the documents reportedly say that China’s external posture and military trends are a matter of serious concern and constitute unprecedented maximum challenges to Japan’s national security, North Korea is a more serious and imminent threat than ever before and that Russia is also of strong concern, especially with its moves to strengthen it strategic ties with China.

Second, the documents also reportedly detail how the Self-Defense Forces can utilize stand-off defense capabilities, which, for example, in the event of an armed attack using missiles against Japan means the SDF can launch counterattacks into an opponent’s territory as a minimum measure necessary for self-defense.

Finally, it is reported that the documents will aim to have the defense budget reach 2% of gross domestic product for the fiscal year of 2027 while maintaining that the nation will continue to commit to its exclusively self-defense-oriented security policy and to not become a military power.

The documents seem to be moving in the right direction and properly addressing the controversial counterattack issue, which has been endlessly debated by Japanese lawmakers since 1956. In addition, although the nation’s deterrence capabilities are lagging behind others, it is not too late for Japan to start trying to bring its national security policy and military posture in alignment with international standards.

I also emphasized that I did not fully appreciate the concept of senshu-boei (purely defensive security policy), which really does not mean much in practical terms. Japan’s counterstrike capability, which every other nation exercises, is hardly a departure from the postwar pacifism, but rather is a powerful means to reinforce it.

In the question and answer session, to my surprise, though, there were no critical questions about the implementing of counterstrike capabilities such as was argued by the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers. On the contrary, there were many reasonable and constructive questions from the audience.

One asked about how public opinion is affecting the momentum in overcoming political obstacles in evolving Japan’s defensive capabilities.

Recent opinion polls show that over 50% of surveyed Japanese seem to favor increasing the nation’s defense budget. That rise in support can be attributed to recent aggressive posturing by North Korea, China and Russia, and is helping to fulfill the dreams of many in Japan’s national security community.

Speaking of new capabilities, Japan will join the U.K. and Italy to develop a next generation fighter jet. What was behind this decision? To deter China in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, Russia, North Korea and Iran in a bid to maintain a stable Middle East, Japan needs strong alliances and the U.K.-Italy-Japan co-development program makes sense as it strengthens ties with NATO member states.

Another asked about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s more conciliatory approach during a recent Japan-China summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and in what areas could the two nations cooperate to avoid conflict.

Unfortunately, the answer is not much in this regard, because Xi’s strategic priority is always the United States. He considers relations with other nations including Japan, Australia and those in Europe only in the context of his strategic calculations vis-a-vis the United States.

Another question involved South Korea and are there any prospects for improved relations.

I am rather optimistic, no matter how long it may take. In the case of Washington and Tokyo, it took more than 70 years to truly reconcile with each other, exemplified by Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama’s joint 2016 visits to the Peace Park in Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I personally wish the Korean Peninsula to be united, free, democratic, independent and prosperous, and that is when we can reach a comfortable level of rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo.

Naturally, Taiwan was also a point of focus, and given its proximity to Japan, it was asked if there are any parallels with the Ukraine crisis.

We learned a lesson from the war in Ukraine that dictators make mistakes and that mistakes made by absolute dictators cannot be easily corrected. In order to prevent a Taiwan contingency, we must be able to show that we are ready to fight, if necessary, as a means to deter military aggression against Taiwan.

And finally, one person asked: Japan was applauded by its Group of Seven friends when it quickly joined the Russia sanctions but kept the Sakhalin gas and oil projects and would that cause some concern among other G7 nations.

My answer was no, because I understand that Europeans are much more dependent on Russian energy resources than Japan. We wish to send the right message not only to Moscow but also to Beijing when we got unprecedentedly tough on Russia.