A privileged alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom, a technological partnership and an increase in deterrence capacity are the three pillars of Japan’s new national security doctrine, in which the EU as such does not play an important role, except for a marginal Italian presence. by Andrea Monti – Adjunct Professor of Digital Law at the Master of Digital Marketing, University of Chieti-Pescara – initially published in Italian by Formiche.net
On 16 December 2022, Japan released its updated National Security Strategy; around the same time it was announced the news of Japan’s entry into the Anglo-Italian project to build a new fighter aircraft, the Tempest, to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon. About three weeks later, at their bilateral meeting on 11 January, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Kishida Junichiro, announced that they had finally reached an agreement on military cooperation, which would come into force once their respective parliaments have approved it. In general terms, the relationship between the two countries is based on a shared geopolitical vision of the Far East, creating a military axis and exchanging cutting-edge technology. If we add to this Japan’s interest in access to the Five Eyes network — and, on the other hand, the willingness of the interested parties to allow it— it is difficult not to see the whole of these relations as a real de facto military alliance.
The chronology of events is too close together to fail to see the geopolitical design that unites them. This can be summed up in one concept: the ban that limited Japanese military capability to an exclusively defensive sphere has been lifted. This conclusion is clear both from the title of the new Japanese doctrine (which refers to ‘security’ rather than national ‘defence’) and from reading between its lines (even if the English translation fails to appreciate the subtleties of the original text).
Any offensive or defensive strategy must begin with threat identification. Only in this way is it possible to define the objectives, times, methods and resources needed to achieve victory.
As the Prussian general von Moltke famously observed, no plan can withstand the effects of battle, but this does not diminish the centrality of planning. It is, therefore, not surprising that the first point of the Japanese National Security Strategy is the identification of (potential) foes.
One is accused of ‘openly trampling’ on its mandate as a permanent member of the UN Security Council for international peacekeeping. Another is accused of being one of those states that by ‘not sharing universal values, are exploiting unique approaches to rapidly develop their economies and science technologies, and then, in some areas, are gaining superiorities over those states that have defended academic freedom and market- economy principles.’
It is difficult not to associate Russia’s military aggression and China’s economic warfare with these anonymous statements, so much so that these countries are mentioned in the following pages. However, this is hardly a news considering that China, Russia and Korea have been regarded as hostile powers since the end of the nineteenth century (and way before, indeed).
The formalisation of national interests
Unlike other countries — Italy first — Japan has clearly defined which national interests the new strategy is supposed to protect. From a formal point of view, this choice is crucial because it provides the executive branch with clear guidelines and an insurmountable limit to its political actions.
It, therefore, falls within the scope of national security:
- the defence of independence, sovereignty and territory, and — a non-marginal aspect — the preservation of cultural identity
- the use of the economy as a means of ensuring the country’s prosperity in the context of at least equal international cooperation
- a commitment to work together, not only in the Indo-Pacific region, to maintain and develop a free and open international order.
Although tempered by reference to international law, these objectives are in substantial continuity with those theorised in 1890 by Yamagata Aritomo (field marshal and twice prime minister). He argued that ‘The independence and security of the nation depend first upon the protection of the line of sovereignty and then the line of advantage. . . . If we wish to maintain the nation’s independence among the powers of the world at the present time, it is not enough to guard only the line of sovereignty; we must also defend the line of advantage . . . and within the limits of the nation’s resources gradually strive for that position’.
The definition of principles
The principles governing political action are based on recognising the crisis in the current international order and the need for strong leadership to restore it.
‘Due to the changing balance of power and diversifying values around the world,’ the document says, ‘strong leadership is being lost in the global governance structure at large … At the same time, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the United States, Japan’s ally with the world’s greatest comprehensive power, and international frameworks such as the G7 to manage risks in the international community and to maintain and develop a free and open international order’.
- Proactive contribution to peace based on international cooperation or, once again, reaffirming Japan’s ability to operate outside its national borders but within the framework of international law;
- Subordinating national security to the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights. As with the definition of national interests, the formalisation of the law’s primacy over the executive’s political interests is in some ways revolutionary, as it consolidates the role of the Diet in the management of national security. The choice is not trivial or obvious, considering that in Italy, for example, there has not yet been a clear ‘normativisation’ of national security, which has ‘simply’ remained at the level of a title without any development.
- Exclusion of nuclear weapon as part of the defence arsenal and support for non-proliferation, but at the same time, a clear commitment to be part of the US deterrence system. In this context, however, it is interesting to note — the devil is always in the detail — that while Japan declares that it does not want to become a military nuclear power, it also clearly states that it relies on the extended deterrence of the US, backed by its full range of capabilities, including nuclear.
- A privileged relationship with the United States. The reaffirmation of the centrality of the relationship with the United States is a clear indication of the choice of area in the management of security policy, which does not necessarily have to take into account the needs of the EU.
- Creating complementary strategic axes. However central, cooperation with the US is not the only instrument for protecting national interests, which can, therefore, be pursued through bilateral or multilateral agreements with other like-minded countries. The formalisation of commitments to military and technological cooperation with the United Kingdom (not new, given that the alliance with the Crown was established in 1902) perfectly aligns with this scheme.
The choice of targets and means
The ultimate elimination of any threat that might reach Japan in a manner conducive to protecting national interests. A ‘rigid’ reading of this objective could be seen as a limit to possible diplomatic negotiations in the event of a crisis. This would not allow for the conclusion of agreements that provided for a limitation of national interests as defined above. Perhaps the wound caused by the intervention of the ‘Eastern Triple Alliance’ (Russia, France and Germany), which forced Japan to give up the Liaodong Peninsula, acquired in 1895 with the Treaty of Shimonoseki at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war, is still open.
- Achieving technological, economic and industrial sovereignty. International cooperation with like-minded countries (which does not necessarily mean “friends”) will have to be competitive. On the one hand, the self-sufficiency of the Japanese economic structure must be preserved; on the other hand, other countries must be put in a position where they cannot do without Japanese technologies.
- Building a new international order. By qualifying itself as a ‘major global actor’, Japan is claiming a central role in achieving a new balance, not only in regional scenarios, by formalising its commitment to intervene in advance in the event of unilateral actions aimed at changing the status quo.
- Taking an active role in addressing global issues such as climate change and pandemics. Pursuing these objectives is entrusted to the synergy between the various levels of political action and the private sector. The public contribution is entrusted with strengthening diplomatic relations, reinforcing the ‘floating fortress’ policy, supporting a free market investment policy and playing a central role in the global supply chain. The private sector is invited to increase cooperation in developing national security technologies and preventing critical information theft.
Japan’s national security strategy is an evolution rather than a revolution. On the one hand, it deals with the consequences of technological development and economic change. On the other hand, it updates — but in continuity — a political vision built in the second half of the 19th century and developed from the second post-war period onwards.
The new element is undoubtedly the end of the ‘military prejudice’ that prevented Japan from developing an offensive apparatus and intervening outside its borders. Formally, nothing has changed in the Japanese constitution, but in substance, albeit in (relatively) small steps, things are changing. So far, it cannot be said that this new national security strategy legitimises Japan to protect its interests by unilaterally deploying expeditionary forces. At the same time, however, it indicates the political will to resume a role beyond regional borders and purely economic spheres and declare itself firmly on the side of the advocates of international legality.
The great absentee in this political strategy is the European Union. It is never mentioned as an interlocutor, given the explicit reference to individual European nations, which, as in the case of the UK, do not necessarily coincide with the EU.
Italy’s strategic role remains to be defined. Military cooperation agreements such as those with the UK seem unlikely. It is possible, however, that joint participation in the Tempest project could provide a first point of contact for a technology transfer — or rather an “exchange” — in the very high technology sector, with all the not-inconsiderable positive consequences in terms of research, development and the international strengthening of the defence industrial sector.