Japan and Emerging Strategic Risks in the Asia-Pacific
Asia-Pacific Strategic Risks

Japan and Emerging Strategic Risks in the Asia-Pacific

Together with the European Leadership Network, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network organised a series of workshops and conferences on the perception of strategic risks among three Asia-Pacific states during 2022-23. The project analyses the impact of risk perceptions on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. This report by Prof. Nobumasa Akiyama provides the Japanese perspective.

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Executive summary

Japan’s security concerns, priorities, and perceptions of strategic risk:

  • The strategic environment surrounding Japan is becoming more challenging and complex.
  • China is significantly increasing its capabilities in nuclear and conventional forces, as well as in new domains such as cyber and outer space.
  • The risk of China’s invasion of Taiwan has become more frequently discussed in Japan after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and could pose a vital or even an existential threat to Japan.
  • North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons, frequently testing various types of delivery systems and moving closer to acquiring a more robust nuclear capability.

Major policy changes and continuities in Japan:

  • Japan released its new National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Outline, and the Mid-term Defense Force Development Plan. In the revision process, there are ongoing discussions regarding how to deal with the growing threat of China and North Korea’s nuclear capability, and how to create a more favourable security environment for Japan.
  • Three major issues have emerged in response to the growing threats in East Asia and in the wake of the war in Ukraine: Defense spending, “counter-strike capability”, and the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence.

Factors that could affect Japan’s approach to nuclear weapons and their impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime

  • There is growing concern about the credibility and reliability of the extended nuclear deterrence offered by the US but, to date, this has not changed current alliance arrangements.
  • Three scenarios – US retreat from Asia, nuclear armament of South Korea, or a situation in which Japan is left behind in a US-China rapprochement – could potentially alter this situation and lead to Japan to consider developing its own nuclear weapons.
  • Structural factors are not yet sufficient to prompt Japan to choose the nuclear option, but if the Japan-US alliance were to falter this could change.
  • A decision by Japan to possess nuclear weapons would make the security dynamic in Asia more complex and riskier and would destroy the global non-proliferation regime. To prevent this, it is necessary to work to maintain the credibility of extended deterrence between Japan and the US.
  • In the medium to long term, diplomatic efforts are also needed to encourage China to engage in arms control and risk management dialogue, with Japan and the US taking joint steps with South Korea and Australia to reduce nuclear threats in the region. It will also be necessary to engage in risk management dialogue with Pyongyang, while aiming for North Korea’s denuclearisation.

Other reports in this series

The Australian Perspective – Michael Cohen

The South Korean Perspective – Lee Sang Hyun

About the Author

Nobumasa Akiyama is an APLN member, and the Dean of the School of International and Public Policy at Hitotsubashi University and Adjunct Research Fellow at Japan Institute of International Affairs. His other professional appointments include a member of the International Group of Eminent Persons for a World without Nuclear Weapons and Advisor to the Japanese delegation to the NPT Review Conferences since 2000. Recent publication includes: “’No first use’ in the context of the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” Asian Security, (2021), “AI Nuclear Winter or AI That Saves Humanity? AI and Nuclear Deterrence,” Joachim von Braun, Margaret S. Archer, Gregory M. Reichberg, Marcelo Sanchez-Sorondo, eds, Robotics, AI, and Humanity (Springer, 2021).

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: iStock)