Strategic Risk Assessment in East Asia: A Japanese View
Special Reports

Strategic Risk Assessment in East Asia: A Japanese View

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Executive summary

In this special report, Nobumasa Akiyama analyses current Japanese assessments of strategic risks in East Asia.

In December 2022, the Japanese government unveiled a set of key strategic documents – the National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), and Defense Buildup Program (DBP) – signifying a significant shift in Japan’s defense posture in response to a complex and severe security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. The documents highlight security challenges from North Korea and Russia but identify China as Japan’s most substantial strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific due to its expansionist policies, military activities, and economic coercion. Under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, Japan adopted a proactive approach to address the China challenge, emphasising both diplomatic and defense policies. Collective self-defense and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy played critical roles in this strategy. In the post-Abe era, Japan, led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, aims to bolster its defense capabilities in response to a more severe security environment.

The focus of Japan’s response is on enhancing counter-strike capabilities to deter potential Chinese offensive military operations as well as North Korean threats. The Japan-US alliance remains a cornerstone of Japan’s security policy, particularly in addressing a potential Taiwan contingency. Deterrence is particularly challenging, given the evolving nature of China’s military actions, which include intimidation, coercion, and military exercises. Japan has become increasingly apprehensive about China’s military buildup and aggressive actions, with almost 80% of the Japanese public expressing concerns about a potential crisis involving Taiwan. However, support for deploying Japanese Self- Defense Forces in such a scenario remains relatively low.

To address these concerns, Japan is developing long-range strike capabilities, including the introduction of Tomahawk missiles and the deployment of missile systems. The Japan-US alliance is actively working on coordinating operational plans and conducting training exercises to enhance readiness and deterrence in response to the deteriorating security environment, particularly in the Taiwan Strait. These combined efforts underscore the critical need to maintain peace and stability in the region and to deter any attempts to change the status quo through military means. The Kishida administration has also outlined its commitment to strengthening engagement with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region, guided by the FOIP vision.

The special report makes three recommendations for Japan:

  • Strengthening Japanese defence capabilities: If Japan can fulfill its primary responsibility for its own defence and eventually stop or eliminate an invasion early and far away, it would mean that Japan will have the capabilities necessary for its own defence, and the United States will be able to devote more forces and resources to the defence of Taiwan.
  • Strengthening trilateral Japan-US-ROK coordination: Linking the US-ROK alliance with the Japan-US alliance is indispensable to ensure the effectiveness of countering North Korea, which has been enhancing its nuclear and missile capabilities and adopting a more hostile posture. Furthermore, cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea is also necessary in the event of a Taiwan contingency, and is also considered effective in deterring China from intensifying its coercive actions and moves to change the status quo.
  • Threat reduction through strategic communications: If Japan’s relations with China and North Korea make it difficult for both sides to engage in candid and constructive dialogue about their mutual strategic concerns and interests, or the desirable nature of the relationship, Japan, the United States, and South Korea need to strengthen their deterrence posture through capacity building and enhanced coordination as described above. Even in the midst of such a response, however, it is essential to pursue strategic dialogue as an effort to avoid the risk of escalation of crises in the short term and of an arms race in the medium and long term.

About the Author

Nobumasa Akiyama is APLN Associate Fellow and Professor at the School of International and Public Policy and the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University.

The publication of this report was supported by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The views represented herein belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of APLN or ELN, their respective staff, boards, or members, nor do they reflect the views of the FCDO.

Image: National Diet Building in Japan at night, iStock.

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