Japan is preparing for a more assertive posture as the remnants of its historical injury wear off. The Instrument of Surrender, signed in 1945, contained, amongst others, the condition for a demilitarised Japan. It imposed crippling terms to ensure Japan would not rise again as a military power. This state has persisted since the end of the Second World War. However, the recent flux in Japanese policies indicates that Japan is ready to assume an active role in shaping the future through military means if necessary. As per Tokyo’s vision, currently, the country is revising its military policy owing to changing national perceptions and geopolitical developments. It has put forward three key documents, including the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defence Strategy, and the Defence Buildup Plan. In addition to these policies imbuing Japan with a more offensive posture, its Official Security Assistance (OSA) is also significant for the extension of the country’s military capabilities. The OSA stresses the need for a change in Japan’s capabilities and policies, given that the contemporary international security environment is the most complex ever since the end of the Second World War.
Previously, Japan has mainly focused on peace-building and humanitarian efforts through initiatives such as the Official Development Assistance (ODA) program, which focused on providing financial and technological cooperation and disaster relief, amongst other thematic areas of global concern. Specific channels within the ODA, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), have helped Japan target key areas of international assistance, including the climate and food sectors. These have helped build Japan’s soft power. In addition, Japan has also been involved with multilateral security and assistance initiatives, including United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, where it has worked on major development and reconstruction projects. This has been supplemented by national-level efforts, including its national counterterrorism strategy and Counter-Terrorism Unit-Japan (CTU-J), through which it extended counterterrorism assistance internationally.
On the one hand, Japan is ready to shoulder its responsibilities in the region and beyond as a growing power. On the other hand – as the provisions of the OSA indicate – it is also not drastically parting ways with its previous cautious stance on military matters.
In contrast, Japan’s military role is much more pronounced in its contemporary foreign policy. The NSS approved in December 2022 marked the beginning of this shift. Under this broader policy, Japan has highlighted the importance of its relations with the US, its commitment to “a Free and Open International Order”, and the threats from North Korean, Russian, and Chinese activities around its neighbourhood and beyond. Under this broader umbrella of the NSA, the OSA envisions a more active role for Japan beyond its national borders. It solidifies infrastructure and development assistance, in addition to supplies and equipment for “like-minded countries” to strengthen and improve their deterrence capabilities and their security capacities. This marks a clear departure from its erstwhile abstinence in the military domain. The project details for the OSA also state that it will be limited to those fields which do not relate directly to any international conflict, including “international peace cooperation operations”, “humanitarian activities”, and “activities for ensuring peace, stability and security based on the rule of law”.
This allows the OSA to maintain a vague stance while creating provisions for military assistance. With a view to its previous iterations of the threats from North Korea, China, and Russia, for example, it is rather ambiguous how this policy stance will play out in reality. Given China’s expanding maritime and military capabilities and the hostile Russian approach, Japan stresses – at the very least – effective deterrence capabilities. Paired with its domestic military development, the OSA provides an instrument for enacting its policy aspirations in the future. While it maintains that it will not participate in any activities related to international conflicts, the OSA can provide a loophole for Japan to counter the Chinese and other threats by invoking the needs of “like-minded countries” should conflicts take shape, which is unacceptable or unfavourable for Japan.
The NSS and the OSA, in particular, signal that, on the one hand, Japan is ready to shoulder its responsibilities in the region and beyond as a growing power. On the other hand – as the provisions of the OSA indicate – it is also not drastically parting ways with its previous cautious stance on military matters. The emerging geopolitical conditions also favour this policy stance. It is especially aided by the US’ increasing delegation of authority to regional actors and powers around the globe. These policies will provide more leverage to Japan to steer matters in its neighbourhood and possibly beyond. In the near future, for instance, it can increasingly influence the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea region. While care must be taken not to overstate the importance of these policies or overanalyse Japan’s ambitions, these policies are significant for the precedent they set and the potential influence they will help the country wield in the future. Especially given the rise of alliances and multilateral ambitions, including the QUAD, Japan has assumed an expanded role in the region and possibly beyond. The OSA and the NSS will be instrumental in enacting all such future ambitions. For the global order, this means an expanding multipolarity and the increasing emergence of new alliances, with a likelihood of more complicated global power politics and conflicts.