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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Japan Is Getting Serious About Its Security

Japan F-35 Rollout Ceremony
Japan F-35 Rollout Ceremony.

Earlier this month, the Japanese government published its latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents, outlining how Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his advisers see Japan’s strategic surroundings and intend to manage them. The directives sound a stark and blunt note. For example, the National Security Strategy closes by declaring that “in no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will bring.”

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Bleak surroundings warrant a muscular response from Tokyo.

Like most official documents out of Japan, the National Security Strategy takes a decidedly grand-strategic outlook. It acknowledges demographic stresses—Japan’s population is plummeting in numbers—and fiscal constraints. The document’s framers also adopt the “comprehensive national power” lingo that’s common currency in China, referring not just to diplomatic, informational, military, and economic implements but to harder-to-pin-down sources of strength such as culture and human excellence.

Together the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy spell out a status quo strategy aimed at upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific” conducive to Japan’s national well-being. A status quo strategy is what military sage Carl von Clausewitz called a “strategy of negative aim,” meaning the contender pursuing it merely wants to keep what it has in the face of aggression. That may not be the most rousing banner to rally behind, but it does accurately convey what conservators of any existing order intend to accomplish.

They want to preserve what is, confounding efforts to subvert it or tear it down.

The twin strategies lament that the United Nations, the supposed keeper of international peace and security, has failed at its primary mission. The latest proof of this, of course, is that one veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, Russia, has flagrantly breached the territorial and political independence of a neighboring nation, Ukraine. Meanwhile China, another permanent member of the council, routinely tramples on its own neighbors’ sovereign rights, albeit through methods less crude than those on display in Ukraine. And in a similar vein, the documents rebut once-fashionable theories that economic interdependence begets international harmony.

Globalization has crashed headlong into geopolitical reality according to Kishida. Japan must tend to its own survival and prosperity.

That being the case, say the documents’ architects, the Indo-Pacific has come to a “historical inflection point,” and to the “most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II.” Suppose Tokyo is using the term inflection point in its precise mathematical sense. Contrary to the casual way the term is used in public discourse, an inflection point isn’t a maximum or minimum on a curve or, in this case, on some trendline that describes the upswing or downswing in national fortunes. An inflection point is a point at which the rate of change—the curve’s slope—flips from positive to negative or the reverse, causing an upward or downward curve to start flattening out. The curve continues on its upward or downward trajectory, just at a more and more gradual rate until it crests and starts descending, bottoms out and starts ascending, or flatlines.

If trendlines relevant to Japanese security are on the downslope, meaning the diplomatic, economic, and defense setting is turning increasingly hostile to Japan, and if the region has indeed come to an inflection point along those dour trendlines, then the Kishida government has seemingly concluded that infusing more national resources into defense will start nudging the trendline in a more benign direction for Japan, its allies, and its friends. It will bottom out before turning increasingly hospitable.

In other words, the situation could continue to worsen for some time before brightening.

And Tokyo seems determined to apply a stimulus of serious moment to hasten its change of fortunes. Commentators on Japanese strategy are atwitter over Kishida’s vow to approximately double defense spending to 2 percent of GDP over the next five years. The National Security Strategy pledges to undertake a “fundamental reinforcement” of the nation’s defense capabilities, which constitute the “last guarantee” of Japanese security. The directive also hints broadly that Japan reserves the right to use its newfound brawn unilaterally rather than remain entirely dependent on the U.S.-Japan security alliance. It proclaims that its new capability will “enable Japan to firmly defend itself on its own” (my emphasis).

That doesn’t mean military adventurism lies in store, though. The National Security Strategy declares that Tokyo’s self-imposed rule against launching preemptive or preventive attacks remains sacrosanct, but it also says that Japan will take a more forceful, less passive approach to national defense than it has since 1945. Rather than confine itself to purely defensive arms and operations, the Self-Defense Forces will wage a type of active defense. Deterrence, proclaim the document’s framers, demands “counterstrike capabilities that leverage stand-off defense capability and other capabilities.” And since Tokyo can’t forecast Chinese, North Korean, or Russian intentions with precision, it will hedge by using these antagonists’ capabilities as the yardstick to judge its own preparations.

It will build on the assumption it will face them in combat.

And then there’s regional politics. The National Security Strategy observes that “Taiwan is an extremely important partner and a precious friend of Japan,” and that the island is under duress as Beijing presses for cross-strait union. Siding with the island is sound geopolitics as well as a sincere profession of friendship and partnership. Should China manage to cow Taiwan into submission or conquer it, the People’s Liberation Army would have turned Japan’s southern flank, empowering China to assert control of shipping lanes critical to Japanese mercantile and military interests, and to otherwise levy military pressure against Japan.

Keeping Taiwan independent, then, represents a vital interest for Japan for a host of reasons.

And the U.S.-Japan alliance? The Kishida government states that the alliance will “remain the cornerstone of Japan’s national security policy,” notwithstanding defense acquisitions that could supply the wherewithal for Japan to stand alone. In short, Japan’s defense buildup will transform the alliance from a hegemonic alliance utterly dominated by the United States into more of an alliance of equals. There’s a Golden Rule of alliances: the ally that furnishes the gold makes the rules. It’s a good thing for Japan to have more say in its own defense.

Precisely how the allies will adapt their endeavors to accommodate a more musclebound Japan remains to be seen. America will probably remain the senior partner. There’s the atomic factor, for one thing. Japan has an acute allergy to going nuclear, meaning it remains content to depend on the United States for extended nuclear deterrence. Nor can Japan expect to overcome China in a martial standoff without help. Yes, Tokyo is doubling its investment in defense. But 2 percent of GDP is not an overpowering level of defense spending. In fact, NATO pegs it as the minimum each Atlantic ally should devote to defense.

It’s a floor, not a ceiling.

Lastly, it’s worth situating the defense news out of Asia in historical context. Henry Kissinger maintains that there are two pillars to any durable postwar order. First, the founders of such an order need to put in place a balance of power to deter the defeated from trying to overturn the new normal, or to vanquish them anew if they try anyway. And second, Kissinger urges the victors to fashion an order that the defeated regard as just on the whole. They need not like it, but they do need to accept it as a legitimate mechanism for resolving future disputes. Both pillars reduce if not eliminate incentives to attempt to overthrow the system.

But here’s the kicker. China is challenging the postwar Asian order installed at the terminus of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. My colleague Sally Paine starts off her history of that long-ago fracas by observing that defeat toppled China from its perch atop the Asian order. Indignant at this disgrace, dynastic, republican, and now communist China have sought to reclaim their accustomed status ever since. China’s naval and military buildup constitutes part of that struggle for supremacy, as does the counter-buildup announced in Japan’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

That says something about the coming age of great-power competition and persistent low-level conflict. Wrangling over power, prosperity, and status in East Asia will not end soon—if it ever does.

Author Expertise and Experience: Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. 403Forbidden

    December 24, 2022 at 11:23 am

    Japan inc has failed to listen to its people or citizens, but instead has chosen to listen to the demands of the squatter power-in-charge.

    When a squatter power-in-charge is in your country, you have zero sovereignty, as he has the right to tell you what to do. And japan is in this truly unenvied situation.

    The result is japan serving as a live ‘shield’ to absorb heavy blows in a shooting & banging war or proxy war unavoidably initiated or fomented by the squatter power to benefit or further its goals and interests.

    In a nutshell, japan is no independent nation; rather it is a vassal or tributary colony of a super ultra megapower.

  2. Steven

    December 25, 2022 at 10:26 am

    403 for a dude that comments on EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE you are a flaming moron.

  3. The Rational Thinker

    December 25, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Never trust someone who claims the system needs saving while simultaneously saying that it is broken. In this instance, the “I want a war with China” crowd accuses China of subverting, tearing down, and ultimately seeking to replace the current world order. That’s bad.

    All we want to do is preserve it. That’s good.

    But the system is broken. It needs fixing.

    What is left unsaid is not that the current world order is good or that changing it is bad, but that we are not the ones changing it is what is bad. Note that the current world order, going on some eighty years now, did not lift people in places like Africa out of poverty. The “Current World Order” actually does its best to keep people in poverty and barring that, on the run as refugees. Note that it was democracies that caused the current messes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Russia’s “crude” assault on Ukraine is no less crude than NATO’s assault on Libya or its active assistance on the illegal blockade of Yemen.

    Meanwhile, Sino-African trade continues to raise the GDP of various African nations while the old “Current World Order” model kept those various nations mired in debt and poverty. The French colonial franc, US vulture capitalism, European use (or at least wilful ignoring) of slave labor in Africa… that is the “Current World Order.”

    Is China completely innocent of any wrongdoing? No… but to be honest, their “might makes right” approach to various regional issues is no different than the US’ approach to issues around the globe. Or more to the point, if we were so benevolent, kind, and helpful to others, why do we fear losing control?

    Japan, like the US, is a status quo power… which is a bad thing. Status quo powers always feel entitled to their success and spend more time, energy, and power trying to hold the clock back than just adapting to new norms. The Roman, Ottoman, French, Dutch, and British Empires all fell expending enormous sums of money, manpower, and resources attempting to stop the clock in their known worlds and it didn’t work. We have conflated past success with future entitlements and it’s not going to work. The conditions that existed when we strove for success have either changed or no longer exist. We would be wise to take that into account.

  4. Bertram

    December 25, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    403 and his chums get paid by the letter, not insightful thoughts.

  5. Philly

    December 25, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    403 I take it you would rather the “squatter in chief” absorb the first shots of a conflict in Western Asia. I vote for you to be the first squatter to have that honor.
    You also neglect to mention that this particular “Squattership” is the lightest burden to the “squatted upon” party ever. We have allowed Japan to strengthen it’s economy and military and diplomatic strength, even to the detriment of our own. I think it has been a pretty equal partnership. All things considered.

  6. Greg Martinez

    December 25, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    A strong Japan is one of the best checks on Chinese Communist expansion.

  7. 403Forbidden

    December 25, 2022 at 5:38 pm

    It’s a given japan is under the very tight & totally inescapable grip of america’s armpit.

    With that out of the way, japan is clearly and most undeniably once more on the fascismo-glory march.

    Compare japan of today with austria. Such a comparison is hopeless due to the asphyxiating armpit situation.

    So, let’s then compare japan with germany. While germany is also ‘locked’ under america’s right armpit, or perhaps its left armpit, germany (unlike japan) has no lingering disputes with its wartime victims despite losing a large or significant amount of traditional/historical territory to its wartime conquerors. Yet poland is today demanding new or fresh war reparations from berlin.

    Japan is geographically well placed (perfect location) for america to wage ruinous wars on other nations in the western pacific, this explains why japan is now so rah-rah on the militant warpath or fascismo path. Despite regular opposition from its public.

    Japan only very recently admitted the existense of activities of unit 731 and also other units like unit 100 but has not apologized or paid amy compensation to their long dead victims. Thanks to america and the tight grip of its armpit.

    The western pacific region will always be ‘back in chains’ due to america’s presence and its warplanning meddling in the region.

    America is always amd forever a war nation, a war society and a warplanning super duper ultra megapower.

    Thanks, 19fortyfive for permitting my two-cents views (which may directly & disturbingly contra / against some other people’s views).

  8. Commentar

    December 25, 2022 at 9:31 pm

    Japan in collusion with USA has wilfully ignored AND trampled on the post-war order that was supposed to bring peace and prosperity and liberty to the wartime occupied countries.

    USA started the ball rolling by nuking japan (twice) before doing the same to the marshall islands (over 60 times).

    Possibly the last US president with any mini or micro iota of moral scruples was FDR (hazy for any jury to decide). Truman unloaded nukes to let his nation test them on live subjects or guinea pigs, and he even had the gall to say “god is with us, and not with our enemies.”

    Post-war japan with corrupt USA illegally and immorally providing protection & coverup for war criminals went along with the US wicked ways despite the fact that US knew about the chem-bio warfare conducted by japan from the late thirties to 1945.

    The US also was aware that the jap war ministry issued an order to kill all POWs after the emperor announced the nation’s surrender.

    Many men, mostly brits and aussies but also included asian slave labor were entombed alive at war’s end, in mine shafts and cave tunnels that were sealed after the kill order was received in places like yoshikuma mine and sado mine.

    Thus, then it was like ma barker colluding with john dillinger in the western pacific and today, these two together have been behind all the havoc and brouhaha taking place today.

    So, in the USA backyard now, you have places like mexico, haiti, colombia, el salvador and other nations filled to the brim with violent crime, poverty, restlessness and daily murders and wanton killings and regular anarchy.

    The result of US corruptness, complete moral incompetence, war-worshipping and desire for hatching political intrigues and quarrels.

    But in the western pacific, there are nations willing to stand up to the japan-US combo and daring to say “fick-off.”

  9. Jimmyf40

    December 26, 2022 at 12:18 am

    U.S. conduct in Japan since 1945 is similar to its order of business in turkey, the gulf states and ukraine.

    Thus one can say U.S. is the top nation responsible for tensions and/or conflicts in Asia, Middle East and Europe.

    Yet it never fails to point fingers at other nations, and all the while employing its beautiful loud megaphone diplomacy or bullhorn diplomacy a/k/a lascivious-style agitprop.

    Still, one may carefully note that it has failed to achieve anything substantial or useful, with at least one obstacle always stubbornly standing in its way.

    In Europe, ukraine is turning into the smallpox hole of the 21st century. In syria, the jihadist and islamist groups supported by CIA & DoD have failed to topple the secular govt, while in asia, north korea is beginning to master technology allowing its ICBMs to reach America.

    U.S. surely won’t be cowed by such failures and will still plan for the greatest of all adventures in history which is none other than WW3.

  10. History and Form

    December 26, 2022 at 10:50 am

    History is returning to form. Now that the Americans are no longer interested in enforcing globalism, the rest of the world’s second tier power need to care for their own security.

    Japan is one of the few with the ability and they will rapidly dominate the Pacific.

    What they won’t do is war with the US. No advantage to it as the Americans won’t re-establish the globalism the Japanese need to survive.

    The big losers in this will be G5, G20, etc. groups. Their machinations for worldwide order are going to hit a wall as various groups check out. That will be funny to watch. Especially once worldwide financial systems fracture and return to regional blocks.

    Many of these blocks will not care what the Soros Foundation and et al think. Even funnier will be when these same blocks clear out the universities and start killing journalists, academics, then NGOs and all of the associated running dogs of international socialism.

    Following that, you will see ethnic cleansing on a mass level. It will probably happen first in Europe as the French start acting French, the Germans act like Germans, etc.

    Going to be interesting times.

  11. CRS, DrPH

    December 26, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    Japan needs nuclear weapons. Same for Taiwan. Israel has had them for years, and it has not been disastrous for the world….in fact, I believe it has helped to stabilize the Middle East.

  12. Terry

    December 28, 2022 at 11:58 am

    While realistically this is necessary, ideally it will be never, but at several more generations before Japan is involved in major combat. Same goes for Germany. Several Asian nations, especially South Korea, are keeping just a wary eye on Japanese rearmament as they are eyeballing communist China.

  13. Me Again

    December 30, 2022 at 8:18 pm

    Gotta love the “Blame America First” crowd. SMH….

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