In mid-December 2022, the Government of Japan led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida approved and publicised a new National Security Strategy (NSS), which provides overall guidance on security, defence and defence buildup.
The drafters of this strategy, including its external reviewers, have dubbed it as one of the transformative policy directives laid out by any Japanese government since World War II. In particular, it defines an active defence approach toward national security and defence as opposed to the conventional “inward-looking” approach.
To summarise the prominent sections of this strategy, Japan has announced its intent to play a more assertive global role, particularly in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific waters. While Japan desires to promote goodwill and confidence-building measures on a bilateral basis with China, Russia, and North Korea, it will rely on alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries through collective posturing and action to tackle threats it perceives as originating there. Tokyo makes it clear that although it looks forward to dependency on mechanisms such as the QUAD and its relations with South Korea, the Japan-US alliance, including the provision of extended deterrence, will remain the “cornerstone” of its national security policy.
At a broader level, the Kishida government evidently points toward China as the single most significant source of strategic threats for Japan in its vicinity. This covers not just the defence but also the long-term economic and socio-cultural realms. This compound threat matrix goes beyond the Pacific waters to the shores of East Africa in the Western Indian Ocean, where Japan carefully mentions using its Self-Defence Force (SDF) facility in Djibouti for the “stable use of the sea lane” as also the evacuation of nationals in the region, if necessary. Thus, while threat management for Russia and North Korea are spatially confined to cyberspace and the Pacific, feared belligerence from China will be trans-oceanic; this is where the fullest functional paradigm of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is revealed.
Pakistan is viewed by Japan as a regional actor in the Western Indian Ocean with low influence. This is also manifested in the fact that Japan’s defence cooperation and military exercises with Pakistan Armed Forces practically kicked off from 2018 onward and have yet to achieve noteworthy status. Therefore, it goes without saying that Japan’s new strategy will affect Pakistan indirectly on two pivots: (1) Chinese economic influence in Pakistan vis-à-vis Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and (2) military balance against its arch nemesis.
Pivot One: Countering Chinese Economic Influence in Pakistan
(1) Technical Cooperation: Capacity development programmes held by Japanese subject-matter experts, particularly aimed at training Pakistani government officials.
(2) Grant Aid: Financial assistance to support various development projects, including infrastructure development, health, education, waterworks etc., which do not require repayment.
(3) ODA Loans: Debt extended on “soft” terms,i.e., low-interest rates and long maturity. These are mostly provided for economic and social infrastructure projects.
Japan’s ODA to Pakistan started in 1954 initially through technical training under the Colombo Plan. This was followed by the first ODA Loan in 1961 and Grant Aid in 1970. The approximate total sums (in yen) expended by Japan until 2016 under these heads to Pakistan are as follows:
Technical Cooperation: 5.1 billion Yen
ODA Loan: 1.4 trillion Yen
Grant Aid: 5.1 billion Yen
While trans-Atlantic powers were busy funding Pakistan against the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s, subsequent to its abolishment, Japan was among the few countries that continued high-level assistance packages for Pakistan. Particularly from the latter half of the 1990s. The successive Japanese governments provided cooperation in the social, economic, development, agricultural and environmental (climate change) sectors. At one point in the 1990s, Japan was the top donor to Pakistan. There was a hiatus of a few years after the 1998 nuclear tests by Pakistan, and cooperation resumed during the era of General Pervez Musharraf.
While Japan will continue to include Pakistan in its FOIP policy at the politico-diplomatic level, the same momentum of engagement is less likely to occur at the military-strategic level.
The 2022 NSS of Japan says that Tokyo will “strategically utilise” ODA to “maintain and develop” a free and open international order guided by its FOIP vision. Moreover, it mentions increased support for Japanese companies operating overseas and promoting collaboration between ODA and non-ODA funds. This could encourage increased political scrutiny of ODA disbursements, so that supported projects do not complement ongoing projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The increased regional economic engagement under BRI is what Japan wants to counterbalance exactly. Furthermore, Japan could offer greater incentives through lax terms and conditions on ODA assistance so that near-default Pakistan has life support. It has already been reported that Chinese companies have decided to “go slow” in Pakistan because of delayed payments and a faltering economic framework.
Japanese companies have enjoyed a monopoly in Pakistan’s automobile sector, which has only recently started to face challenges with the introduction of Korean vehicles in the domestic market. A few months before the NSS came to the fore, leaders from Indus Motor Company Limited, a Pakistani subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan, met Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Vice President of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and evidently gave valuable gifts, sparking a debate in the domestic Twittersphere. As the PML-N has Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the federation, economic analysts proffered it was an attempt to persuade the party leadership to maintain tariff concessions and tax leeways enjoyed by Japanese automakers. These insinuations pointed to concerns that Indus Motor Company Limited had violated Toyota’s Anti-Bribery Guidelines for Business Partners. Strangely, these guidelines have been removed from Toyota’s website.
Pivot Two: Increasing Military Cooperation with India
With reference to the “Indo-Pacific” construct, although Japan is not “dependent” (per se) on India, it is viewed as a valuable geostrategic partner in the Western Indian Ocean theatre. The dispute on the Chagos Islands, also known as Diego Garcia, making headway in favour of Mauritius is not likely to impact the operations of the joint US-UK base there. However, in any alternate scenario, Japan’s SDF can benefit from cross-servicing basing agreements with India covering the full breadth of the Western Indian Ocean. This could include India’s efforts to set up a military airstrip in Agalega island of Mauritius and the rising surveillance capabilities of the Indian Navy’s growing P8I fleet. Interoperability between American, Indian and Japanese naval assets has already been validated on multiple occasions.
Reportedly, the Indian Navy continues to face delays in augmenting its undersea warfare capability through the readiness of a credible submarine force. Naval strategists have pushed for greater nuclear-powered submarines, but exporting of such technology has reportedly been delayed by the US on several occasions. Indian Navy Rear Admiral (Retired) K. Raja Menon, leader of the research group which drafted India’s Maritime Security Strategy, wrote an intriguing piece arguing that nuclear reactors planned for market introduction by Mitsubishi and Hitachi corporations can be modified to fit on Indian submarines against a “potential foe,” i.e. China.
Strategically, any approved sale of nuclear reactors to India by Japan would fit within a directive in its new NSS, which states that:
“Transfer of defence equipment and technology overseas is a key policy instrument to ensure peace and stability, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, to deter unilateral changes to the status quo by force, to create a desirable security environment for Japan, and to provide assistance to countries that are subject to aggression in violation of international law, use of force, or threat of force”.
From an operational standpoint, Japan stands to benefit by empowering the Indian Navy with nuclear propulsion technology because it will strengthen its domestic industrial base and not send belligerent signals to its East Asian neighbours. Kishida himself has stressed in the recent past that he is not in favour of inducting nuclear submarines in Japan’s naval fleet. In addition, the early fitting of nuclear engines in the Indian Navy will complement the existing distance limitations of US submarines stationed in Diego Garcia. For Pakistan, however, this means that the Arihant-class fleet will be completed before 2025, while the construction timeline for SSNs under Project 75-A will also be rolled back.
Bilateral exercises between the armed forces of both countries have been regularly ongoing, beginning with Japan India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) in 2012 and army-to-army exercises “Dharma Guardian” since 2018. In January 2023, the air forces of both countries will conduct their first bilateral drill, “Veer Guardian”, at two airbases in Japan. Russian-origin Su-30MKIs will participate from the Indian side. It is believed that participating jets will be coming from the No. 222 squadron under the Southern Air Command of India.
In the May 2022 meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in China, the host Foreign Minister Wang Yi lambasted America’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy and made it clear that his country views it as an attempt to “contain” Beijing. The dilemma for Pakistan is that it has not defined, let alone publicised, its policy toward the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For all practical purposes, Islamabad is timidly hedged between Beijing and Tokyo.
This means that while Japan will continue to include Pakistan in its FOIP policy at the politico-diplomatic level, the same momentum of engagement is less likely to occur at the military-strategic level.
The 2022 NSS of Japan is firm in its orientation and clearly defines lines of bilateral and multilateral action to protect the country’s security interests. It is not surprising that the US was among the first to welcome its passage, given that some American academics were made privy to its contents several days before its publication.
While Japan places extraordinary reliance on its alliance with the US to realise its FOIP strategy and makes only a cursory mention of India, the administration of President Joseph Biden lays emphasis on India as a Major Defence Partner to achieve the same end. For Pakistan, therefore, the key to preventing strategically unfavourable Japanese overtures toward India remains in the US, which is the ultimate patron and enabler of the FOIP.