When the Japanese government released its updated National Security Strategy in late December, headlines in the West described it as “historic,” noting it was the nation’s “biggest military build-up since World War II.” Although the NSS, along with two other defense planning documents released at the same time, does represent a considerable reorientation of Japan’s national security policy, it’s not a sudden shift. Rather, the Anpo San Bunsho—“three national security documents”—are the result of a years-long effort that reflect an increasing sense of urgency about the threat presented by China.
Japan issued a National Security Strategy in 2013, but since then the security environment has taken a turn for the worse. Over the last decade, Japan has faced Beijing ramping up its aggression in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands and its growing aggressiveness toward Taiwan, Chinese economic coercion in the the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, and renewed intensity in North Korea’s provocative actions. And in the early stages of revising the strategy, Japan witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s attempt to use the threat of nuclear weapons to intimidate not only Ukraine but also the countries in Europe that tried to support Ukraine.
These factors propelled domestic debate on issues that had been considered taboo due to their heightened political sensitivity in Japan—defense spending and acquiring counterstrike capabilities—but also on policies that require an all-of-government approach, like economic security, space, and cybersecurity. The resulting Anpo San Bunsho, which also includes the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Build-up Plan, seek to articulate how Tokyo will reorient its post-World War II security policy. Three elements of that reorientation stand out.
First, the 2022 NSS clearly identifies China as “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community, as well as in strengthening the international order based on the rule of law.” This is a notable departure from Tokyo’s past approach to China. Previously, Tokyo sought to strike a balance between calling China out for its assertive behavior while attempting to engage in other areas, particularly given the economic interdependence between the two countries. Even though the 2013 NSS described China’s behavior in the East and South China seas as “a source of serious concern to the international community, including Japan,” it stopped short of calling it a direct security threat to Japan. In addition, the level of detail the 2022 NSS gets into regarding China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region reflects grave concern.