Lessons and Challenges for the Kishida Cabinet

Security Agenda for the Kishida Cabinet: Building a Credible Deterrent Capability


Kanehara Nobukatsu, a former senior national security official, calls on the new prime minister to double defense spending and prepare for the threat of a Taiwan contingency, with an emphasis on crisis management and cyber defense.

The Liberal Democratic Party held onto its lower house majority in the October 31 House of Representatives election, but it can scarcely afford to rest on its laurels given the urgent security challenges facing the fledgling cabinet of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. At the heart of the problem is China, which has made no effort to conceal its ambitions for Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands as it continues its relentless military expansion. In the following, I explain the nature of the threat facing Japan and the steps we must take to prepare for and avert a security crisis.

China’s Rise

The Chinese economy has grown rapidly over the past decade; its gross domestic product is now more than 70% that of the United States and about three times that of Japan. China’s defense budget, meanwhile, is five times higher than Japan’s on a market-rate basis and 16 times higher when adjusted for purchasing power parity. Admiral Phil Davidson, former head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, has predicted that China will have the capability to forcibly reunify Taiwan with the mainland within the next six years.

The rise of such a dominant military power in such close proximity to Japan harkens back to the threat of the Mongol empire during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) or that of imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century. The security situation has not been this tense since the mid-twentieth century, when the combined threat of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea loomed over a Japan still recovering from World War II.

In time, the Russian peril dissipated. The Soviet Union was held in check by the massive forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the one hand and the US nuclear arsenal on the other. As its economy faltered, it sought relief from the arms race through arms-control negotiations. Thanks to a rigorous regime of mutual verification, Washington and Moscow were able to build a sufficient level of trust to establish a kind of “cold peace.”

But China today is a different story. Unlike the Soviet Union in the Cold War era, China is growing stronger all the time; it has no interest in arms control or arms reduction. Under President Xi Jinping, it has challenged the leadership of the United States and its democratic partners and is attempting to assert and expand its own sphere of influence in Asia.

Risks of a Taiwan Contingency

In the post-communism era, the Communist Party of China has legitimized its continued dictatorship by mythologizing its role in Chinese history from the early twentieth century to the present. According to this mythology, it was the CPC that expelled Britain, the United States, Japan, and the other imperialist powers that had carved up the country among them as the Qing dynasty was collapsing. The party had then defeated Chiang Kai-shek, the arch-villain of China’s civil war, who fled to Taiwan with his Kuomintang. That accomplished, the CPC had unified the nation, built the New China, and ushered in the dazzling growth and development of recent years.

As a story of triumph and unification, this myth must of necessity culminate with the annexation of the “renegade province” of Taiwan. But that is not likely to be accomplished without force. The Taiwanese people have built their own separate identity. Moreover, Taiwan’s millennials were born into a free and democratic society. The country is a force to be reckoned with, with a population of 23 million—comparable to that of Australia or Malaysia—and a GDP that would qualify most countries for membership in the Group of 20. It is already a key member of the World Trade Organization and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

An independent Taiwan is also of great importance to the other countries of Northeast Asia. The Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines lies at the confluence of sea lanes connecting the region with Oceania, the Persian Gulf, and Europe. For Japan, the problem goes beyond freedom of navigation: If China were to establish naval bases in Taiwan, defending the Japanese archipelago would become extremely difficult.

If a Taiwan contingency were to break out, Yonaguni and other outlying islands administered by Okinawa Prefecture would doubtless fall within the war zone. The conflict might also engulf the main island of Okinawa, where US bases are concentrated, and possibly even Kyūshū. A contingency of this sort must be averted at all costs.

Building a Credible Deterrent

Over the past six or seven years, Japan has taken significant diplomatic steps to counter this threat by bolstering security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. During his second administration, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō secured widespread support for his Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, which gave rise to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (generally known as the Quad), a cooperative strategic framework encompassing the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. On the military front, Australia, Britain, and the United States have forged the AUKUS security pact. These are encouraging developments.

In terms of military capability, however, the US alliance system in the Indo-Pacific (that is the network of alliances between the United States and such partners as Japan, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand) remains far weaker than NATO. For the sake of our national defense and the security of the region as a whole, Japan needs to assume a much larger burden.

In the event of a Taiwan contingency, the US military would have its hands full defending Taiwan and Guam. That means that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces must have the capacity to defend the Japanese archipelago—including the outlying islands—on their own. This is hard to imagine given Japan’s reluctance to take such a basic step as stationing intermediate-range missiles for counter-strike purposes. Nor are we equipped to protect the oil tankers in our shipping lanes, let alone respond to such high-tech threats as electromagnetic pulse attacks, cyberwarfare, and satellite attacks capable of causing a communications blackout.

The SDF still has much to do in terms of integrating ground-based, naval, and air operations. In addition, the issue of nuclear deterrence needs to be addressed head-on in summit-level dialogue. Once Japan and US leaders enter into a serious discussion about nuclear deterrence, the deployment of American ground-launched intermediate-range missiles will move up the agenda as well.

With these issues in mind, I propose the following security priorities for the Kishida cabinet.

Priority 1: Double Defense Spending

The first priority must be to double defense spending from its current level of ¥5.34 trillion (fiscal year 2021). South Korea, with an economy only one fourth the size of Japan’s, is poised to surpass Japan in defense spending. Given the difficulty of significantly expanding the personnel strength of our armed forces, we need to ramp up spending on unmanned and labor-saving systems to create a “lean and mean” fighting force, while simultaneously equipping our military to counter the threats of cyberwarfare and space warfare.

For years the Japanese government has held defense spending to less than 1% of gross domestic product. The government should immediately double that, for an annual defense budget of roughly ¥10 trillion. Some may object on fiscal grounds, citing Japan’s soaring public debt. But such considerations did not prevent the government from mobilizing vast fiscal resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the damage from an escalating Taiwan contingency could dwarf that from the coronavirus. No amount of money can buy back lost lives.

Priorities 2 and 3: Cyber Defense and Crisis Management

The next priority is to strengthen cybersecurity. In this age of digital transformation, cyberspace engulfs all the space we inhabit. It is an invisible realm unconstrained by distance, by national borders, and—thus far—by the law. In cyberspace, the distinction between wartime and peacetime does not exist. Today, a handful of hackers and cybercrime gangs are busy honing their capacity to cripple our vital infrastructure, doing with a few keystrokes what was once possible only by a massive strategic aerial strike.

The SDF has finally established a Cyber Defense Group, but that unit has no authority to defend civilian targets from cyberattacks. The Japanese police are well equipped to counter ordinary cybercrime when it occurs but not to prevent or respond to a full-scale national emergency. Similarly, the NISC (National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity) under the Cabinet Secretariat is charged with responding to situations as they occur, not building a system to secure the government and the nation’s vital infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Japanese intelligence community has distanced itself from the new Digital Agency and its plans to create an integrated e-government system—concerned, one assumes, about data security. This is no way to ensure Japan’s survival in the age of cyberwarfare.

The third priority should be measures to bolster crisis management through cabinet-level drills. Disasters wreak their havoc and destruction indiscriminately, and they leave an information vacuum in their wake. In a major national emergency, we would need to mobilize and coordinate tens of thousands of responders under the separate command structures of the SDF’s constituent forces and the Coast Guard, along with police and firefighters. That requires not only advance planning but also the ability to implement such a plan without hesitation; there is no time for leisurely deliberation. In a security crisis, as in a natural disaster, every minute of hesitation can cost untold lives. This is the nature of war.

Since establishing a Joint Staff Office, the SDF has conducted integrated drills assiduously. Yet our government officials, whose task it is to guard the home front and protect the people, are utterly unprepared for the eventuality of war. That applies equally to the prime minister, who is commander-in-chief of the SDF. The cabinet conducts earthquake drills on a yearly basis, yet it appears to have given no thought to the possibility of war. Textbook learning is of little use in an emergency. Only by repeated drills, with the worst-case scenario in mind, can the Japanese government hope to guide the nation through a security crisis.

Priority 4: Integrating Tech and Security Policy

The fourth priority is to firmly link our sci-tech and national security policies.

As a member of the Western bloc during the Cold War, Japan was conspicuous for the depth of its domestic divisions over foreign policy. From 1955 on, the nation’s two major political parties, the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party, were fundamentally at odds over Japan’s basic Cold War stance: The LDP was anti-Soviet and firmly committed to the Japan-US Security Treaty, while the JSP rejected the Japan-US alliance, calling for a neutralist foreign policy and closer relations with the Soviet Union. This polarization made any meaningful discussion of security policy almost impossible. The legacy of that era is still with us.

While the conservative LDP remained in control of the government throughout the Cold War, Japanese academia was dominated by left-leaning intellectuals with a pacifist bent, who were deeply critical of the LDP and the Japan-US alliance. Over the five decades of the Cold War, an anti-government, anti-military orientation took hold among Japanese academic institutions, almost as a matter of identity. This outlook remains firmly entrenched even today, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this academic culture, intense peer pressure prevents university scientists and engineers from cooperating with the government—and especially with the Ministry of Defense—even if they wish to contribute to national security.

A few years ago, the Defense Ministry allocated a trifling ¥10 billion to fund the National Security Technology Research Promotion program, designed to support academic research into technologies with both civil and military applications and foster exchange between university researchers and industry engineers. The program immediately drew howls of protests from Japan’s scientific establishment. In 2017, the influential Science Council of Japan officially reaffirmed its “commitment to never become engaged in scientific research for military purposes.” It warned universities against participating in the program, and a large number of institutions complied.

The Japanese government spends ¥4 trillion a year funding scientific research and development, almost as much as it spends on defense. In the current climate, however, virtually none of this investment reaps dividends in terms of national security.

The government needs to draw up a comprehensive policy on national security technology. As a key component of this policy, it should take inspiration from Beersheba in southern Israel, which has been transformed into a national center for cybertech research. The Japanese government should build a second Tsukuba Science City and invest several trillion yen annually, bringing together top scientists and engineers from industry, academia, the government, and the SDF to engage in research and development of cutting-edge dual-use technologies.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio fields questions from the press before flying to Glasgow from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on November 2, 2021. © Jiji.)

China LDP national security Kishida Fumio