Japan Rethinking Its Security Policy

Bolstering Standoff Capabilities and Japan-US Alliance : An Interview with Jimbo Ken (Part 2)


Defense policy expert Jimbo Ken takes a closer look at the content of Japan’s revised national security documents, including the controversial concept of “counterstrike capability,” in part 2 of this interview by Nippon.com’s Takenaka Harukata.

Jimbo Ken

Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keiō University. Born in 1974. Earned his PhD in media and governance from Keiō University. Fields of expertise include international security, Asia-Pacific security, and US defense policy. Has occupied his current position at Keiō University since 2008. Concurrently serving as managing director (representative director), International House of Japan, and president, Asia Pacific Initiative.

(Continued from part 1.)

TAKENAKA HARUKATA  The three security policy documents that the Japanese government adopted in December 2022 [National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program] stress the importance of “counterstrike capabilities” and lay out a plan to develop standoff missiles and related weapons at a cost of about 5 trillion yen. What does all this mean, and what are your views on it?

A Politically Convenient Definition

JIMBO KEN  The government’s explanation of counterstrike capabilities is complicated, and there seem to be two slightly different definitions. First [the National Security Strategy] defines them as “capabilities which, in the case of missile attacks by an opponent, enable Japan to mount effective counterstrikes against the opponent to prevent further attacks while defending against incoming missiles by means of the missile defense network.” This definition places counterstrike capability squarely in the context of missile defense, much like the [enemy base strike] capability that was debated in a North Korean context.

But the next paragraph stretches the definition a bit. It notes that “counterstrike capabilities . . . leverage standoff defense capability” and explains that “in cases where armed attack against Japan has occurred, and as part of that attack ballistic missiles and other means have been used,” these capabilities “enable Japan to mount effective counterstrikes against the opponent’s territory . . . as a minimum necessary measure for self-defense and in accordance with the Three New Conditions for Use of Force.” This seems to broaden the purpose beyond missile defense and to include hypothetical targets other than missile bases. It could apply to China as well as North Korea. Moreover, the Three New Conditions for Use of Force, which were adopted by the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, provide for limited engagement in collective self-defense [even if Japan is not directly under attack], and this suggests that counterstrike capabilities could figure in a range of Japan-US joint operations.

Also, the second passage specifies an opponent’s territory as the potential target, though logically speaking, an enemy’s strategic base need not be limited to its territory; it could be located on the high seas, or in space, or in cyberspace, for instance. Furthermore, if Japan is permitted to engage in collective self-defense, the door should be open to strikes in support of an ally that was under attack elsewhere. If that’s the case, a missile attack on Japan should be just one example [of a counterstrike situation]. There’s a lack of clarity in the way the three security documents present this concept.

I would guess the ambiguity emerged during the drafting process, in the course of ironing out differences within the ruling coalition. The Liberal Democratic Party wanted to include the ability to strike inside an opponent’s territory in order to block ballistic missiles or other attacks. But to get the remainder of the coalition onboard, it was necessary to reword the passages so as to rule out preemptive strikes. So, these definitions are driven by politics.

Why Japan Needs a Deep-Attack Capability

JIMBO  More to the point in terms of the underlying security concepts is the reference to standoff capability and the fact that the Defense Buildup Program calls for developing the “capability to operate more advanced standoff missiles.” This is about acquiring a long-range strike capability, which redefines the geographical scope of the Self-Defense Forces’ engagement in armed conflict. How we use this expanded engagement capability, or deep-attack capability, is going to be central to our defense strategy going forward. From this standpoint, we need a more useful definition of counterstrike capability than that which the government has provided.

I think the development of the SDF’s long-range engagement capability should have three basic goals. The first should be enhancing Japan’s ability to control conflict escalation on its own. In the face of multiple threats to Japanese security, a long-range strike capability would allow us to deal with more situations by ourselves. There is a great deal the Japanese military can do to manage gray-zone situations or low-level conflicts before they escalate to the stage of US military intervention. Enhancing that capability would give Japan more strategic autonomy, and it would also help close the regional deterrence gap.

The second goal should be integration into the missions and functions of the Japan-US alliance. America’s military presence and ability to intervene in conflicts is going to remain the linchpin of deterrence in the region. But Japan, as an ally, must provide the necessary support to ensure that the US military can conduct in-theater operations even amid China’s growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities. A deep-attack capability will permit Japan to support US operations from outside the threat zone.

The third purpose is as a complement to our missile defense. North Korea has a wide array of missiles capable of reaching Japan. To defend against them, our first priority should be enhancing our missile defense system, which is the keystone of our integrated air and missile defense. But counterstrike capabilities—as defined by the government—are needed as well, both to maximize our missile defense capability and to deal with situations in which missile defense alone might prove inadequate. It would be very difficult to hit North Korea’s mobile missile launchers, but by attacking fixed above-ground targets, we might be able to augment the overall burden on North Korea’s military operations and reduce the number of incoming missiles. We should examine the potential of such operations very closely.

This kind of counterstrike capability is going to be far more effective in the context of joint operations with the United States and South Korea than with Japan acting alone. If Japan, the United States, and South Korea act separately, it’s bound to hinder escalation control, which is paramount, and it could even fuel mistrust among allies. We need to explore ways of linking America’s striking power, South Korea’s Kill Chain, and Japan’s counterstrike capability. That will enhance regional deterrence and escalation control, and it will also lead to better trilateral policy coordination, operational planning, and joint decision making in respect to conflict intervention.

Smart Investment is Key

TAKENAKA  What do you think about the big increase in defense spending that’s been incorporated into the new policy and, more specifically, the target of 2 percent of gross domestic product? What about the allocation of those funds?

JIMBO  The plans call for expenditures of 43 trillion yen on defense-related spending over the next five years. The 2 percent figure is based on Japan’s 2022 GDP. As long as the Japanese economy grows in real terms, defense spending won’t reach two percent of GDP by 2027. Of course, the two percent target is no more than a rough guideline; what matters is our defense capabilities.

Keiō University professor Jinbo Ken.
Keiō University professor Jinbo Ken.

We need to keep an eye on how wisely our beefed-up defense budget is being spent. The Defense Agency has specified seven priority areas, which I think helps clarify things for the public. The focus over the next five years is going to be on making optimal use of the equipment we already have while investing in tomorrow’s core defense capabilities. The former entails enhancing our ability to sustain combat, our durability and resilience, and our mobile deployment capabilities, areas in which the SDF have been lacking. The latter will involve the procurement of systems needed to build our standoff defense and integrated air and missile defense capabilities, together with investment geared to technological innovation in the cyber and space domains, development of unmanned weapons, artificial intelligence, and so forth. We’ll need to scrutinize the Defense Ministry’s budget requests each year to make sure those investments are being made.

Japan’s Changing Role in the Alliance

TAKENAKA  The Japanese people have long been told that in the Japan-US alliance, Japan acts as the “shield,” while the United States represents the “spear.” The government has said that the basic roles haven’t changed. What are your thoughts on that score?

JIMBO  I suppose it depends on how you define “basic roles,” but in terms of substance, our role has changed very significantly. I think the Japanese government needs to explain this more thoroughly if it wants to secure the public’s understanding. First of all, the range of situations in which the SDF can fight alongside the US military has clearly expanded. The SDF are now permitted [under the Legislation for Peace and Security, which came into effect in 2016] to provide protection for US military assets [in certain situations] and to respond to an attack against another country under specified conditions. This is a major change in the SDF’s role.

Add to that the development of long-range engagement, or deep-attack, capabilities, and you’ve opened the door to joint drills involving SDF fighters and US bombers and hypothetical situations in which Japan employs its attack capabilities to support US military action inside the first island chain. This is a huge departure from our traditional role in the alliance.

Regional Aid and Support

TAKENAKA  Another initiative introduced in the latest NSS is a new framework for international cooperation known as Official Security Assistance, or OSA. It’s an aid program, separate from Official Development Assistance, aimed at providing like-minded countries with security-related equipment, supplies, and infrastructure, including military equipment.

JIMBO  This is another major shift. The most important component here is infrastructure, and the main focus now is the Philippines. In 2014, Washington and Manila concluded the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which permits the US military the use of five Philippine bases. Implementation was almost halted under the administration of President [Rodrigo] Duterte, with its anti-American bent, but it was revived under President [Bongbong] Marcos. Moreover, the number of Philippine bases the US military can use was increased from five to nine. The problem is that a huge amount of money is needed for the bases’ maintenance and infrastructure development, and this is where Japan’s OSA could make a major contribution.

TAKENAKA  The new NSS refers to Taiwan as an “extremely important partner and a precious friend . . . with whom Japan shares fundamental values.” How should we interpret that reference?

JIMBO  This emphasis on Taiwan’s importance in the context of Japan’s security strategy is aimed at preventing China from assuming that it can decouple Japan from the United States in the event of a Taiwan contingency, and that’s a very important message to send. Of course, there’s a big element of uncertainty regarding the kinds of actions Japan would take in such a situation, but politically, it’s very meaningful to consistently emphasize Taiwan’s importance to Japan as a peacetime partner.

The Need for a Regional Framework

TAKENAKA  You’ve given the new security documents a very favorable review overall. As a researcher specializing in international security, is there anything about them that you would change?

JIMBO  I have some issues with their portrayal of the international order. For example, the NSS [under “Purpose”] describes the developing countries as being buffeted by the geopolitical competition between the [advanced democratic] countries that uphold universal values and certain other countries that don’t uphold those values. I don’t care for this depiction of the developing countries as passive players in international affairs. If we make this the premise of our security strategy, then it appears as if our aim is to draw the developing countries into our camp, which could make them wary of accepting ODA or other aid from Japan.

Another problem is the lack of an overarching strategy for regional security. Previously, there was a lot more talk about strengthening security cooperation with other partners in the [Indo-Pacific] region. How does Japan intend to go about building a security regime and a system of deterrence for the wider region?

The core message of the latest strategy seems to be that by boosting its own deterrent capabilities, Japan will be enhancing deterrence throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

For example, in the National Defense Strategy [under “Fundamental reinforcement of Japan’s defense capabilities”], there’s a passage discussing deterrence by denial, which I explained earlier. It states, “if Japan possesses a defense capability to enable disrupting and defeating invasion, this capability, coupled with that of the United States, Japan’s ally, will be able to deter not only an invasion against Japan, but also deter unilateral changes to the status quo by force and such attempts in the Indo-Pacific region.” This is a rather self-important assertion, and it’s not really supported by logic. How could Japan’s deterrence capability, even combined with America’s, deter aggression in other parts of the Indo-Pacific? Could our joint capabilities prevent a conflict between India and Pakistan or a border clash between China and India, for example? If not, that means we need to formulate a broader regional strategy utilizing another framework in tandem with the bilateral alliance.

(Originally written in Japanese by Ishii Masato of the Nippon.com Editorial Department based on a May 12, 2023, interview. Banner photo: Keiō University professor Jimbo Ken, right, and Takenaka Harukata, chair of the Nippon.com Editorial Planning Committee, in Roppongi, Tokyo, on May 12, 2023. © Nippon.com.)

security Japan-US Alliance Taiwan North Korea National Security Strategy defense spending