From Self-Defense to Deterrence: Japan’s New National Security Strategy Will Fuel an Arms Race and Instability

December 24, 2022

About the author:

Dr. Waseem Ishaque, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute



Since the end of World War II, the Japanese Constitution imposed caveats on the size, mandate, and outlook of Japan’s security forces to the exclusive role of self-defense. Such arrangements enabled Japan to dedicate more resources to reconstruction and economic development, which enabled quick post-war recovery. However, on December 16, 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a televised news conference announced a new National Security Strategy (NSS) along with two other documents, a national defense strategy (NDS) and Defense Buildup Program (DBP), indicating a major departure from the last seven decades’ defense policy of self-defense to deterrence. Such an ambitious transformation in Japanese force structure, doctrines and defense budget is likely to fuel an arms race detrimental to regional stability.



Analysis of the National Security Strategy of Japan 2022

The approval of three key national security documents by Prime Minister Kishida’s government followed by a televised news conference on December 16, 2022, marked a new era in Japan’s security environment and post-World War II national security strategy. This would allow Japan to increase defense spending, and acquire sophisticated weapon systems including long-range missile and counter-missile capability. In fact, this is in the context of follow-up actions after the United States issued the Indo-Pacific Strategy, highlighting the prevailing complex and challenging security environments which Japan is facing for the first time since World War II. The document emphasizes Japan’s cooperation with allies and like-minded countries for implementing the vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” and ensuring peace and stability in the region. The NSS explicitly names the U.S., the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, and Southeast Asian countries in the list of like-minded countries, where a strong regional coordination framework is essential. The NSS 2022 was issued after nine years as the previous one was issued in December 2013. The NSS 2022 provides the highest level of strategic guidance for diplomacy, defense, economic security, technology, cyber, and intelligence for the coming decade. The National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) lays out the defense objectives and provides guidance on ways and means to achieve the objectives.


The Defense Buildup Program (DBP) lays out total defense expenditures and procurement volumes for major equipment for the next five to ten years. The DBP allows Japan to increase defense spending to 43 trillion yen ($314 billion) from the fiscal year 2023 to 2027. This is a 56.5% increase from the 27.47 trillion yen in the current five-year plan, which covers the fiscal years 2019 to 2023. This will increase Japan’s defense spending to the NATO standard of 2% of the national GDP in 2027. The increased defense spending will allow Japan to acquire many standoff missiles that can be used for counterforce strikes, including U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles.


In the regional environment context, the NSS highlights China as a major strategic challenge. This follows the US NSS 2022, which has significantly trumpeted China as a competitor and a challenger contrary to the facts. The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appreciated and endorsed Japan’s new NSS, stating that “we welcome the promulgation of Japan’s new NSS documents…which reflect Japan’s strong commitment to upholding the rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.” He added that the U.S. supports Japan’s decision “to acquire new capabilities that strengthen regional deterrence, including counterstrike capabilities.” The U.S. has therefore provided tacit support and approval for Japan’s strategic shift and extensive weapon acquisition program, which will undoubtedly bolster Japan’s defensive and offensive capabilities. However, there is worrisome development too, seeing Japan’s pre-World War II posturing and outlook. Therefore, such a major strategic shift would certainly bring a behavioral change in Japan’s government and military, which is likely to become more aggressive in regional policies, therefore, creating a strong sense of insecurity and vulnerability for Japan’s neighbors, especially China. It is beyond doubt that such developments will create an unnecessary arms race in the region, but would also incentivize the U.S. and QUAD alliance to further raise the ante of the “China challenge as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


The new NSS has a dedicated section on China, which is fairly long and more vocal about its assessment of evolving security architecture pointing towards China as “unprecedented and the biggest 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 rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region,” to which Japan should respond with its comprehensive national power and in cooperation with the U.S. and other like-minded countries.  


There is another strategic shift in the tone, context, and expression about Russia, as in the NSS 2013, Japan termed Russia as a potential asset for peace and stability for the Asia-Pacific region, but in NSS 2022, Japan labeled Russia as a dangerous spoiler whose invasion in Ukraine has breached the foundations of the rules-based international order and a most direct threat to European security. Another point of concern is the phrase in the NSS clubbing China and Russia indicating that “Russia’s activities around Japan and coordination with China are of strong security concerns.”


It is worth noting that a new language in Taiwan has been added, which is yet another significant departure from the previous NSS of 2013. It describes Taiwan as “an extremely important partner and a precious friend of Japan, with whom Japan shares fundamental values, including democracy, and has close economic and personal ties.” However, it terms its principal position on “Taiwan as unchanged.” On the issue of North Korea, the language has been even more explicit implying that “North Korea’s military activities pose imminent and a grave threat to Japan’s national security than ever before,” due to the rapid development of missile-related technology and testing of long-range ballistic missiles off the coast of Japan.


It is beyond doubt that the new NSS would move Japan away from pacifism as the focus of the new strategy hinges upon deterrence in maintaining peace and stability in the already militarized region with looming hot spot issues. While Japan’s neighbors have reasons to be concerned, such a drastic change is creating anxiety and enhancing the vulnerabilities of regional countries. However, the U.S. has already issued a supportive statement to boost the U.S.-Japan alliance stating that the “U.S.-Japan alliance plays heavily into Japan’s security strategy.” The Biden administration has reaffirmed the US commitment to regional allies and partners and demonstrated a willingness to work closely with Japan to “enhance the alliance’s defense capabilities.” The U.S. believes that the increase in the defense capabilities of Japan “will further enhance deterrence and response capabilities of U.S.-Japan alliance and like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region.”




The U.S. and its allies are quite happy with the new NSS of Japan as it accommodates the US Indo-Pacific strategy guidelines and alliance obligations. However, there are genuine concerns among other regional countries, especially China, as the deterrence and counter-missile capabilities of Japan are a direct threat to the national security of China. The evolving situation shall create a dynamic spiral of arms races and instability in the region due to security dilemmas and perceived threats by the regional countries. However, overreaction is also not a pragmatic option. Rather, constructive engagement and active diplomacy can avert any potential crisis and help maintain regional peace and stability.




Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.



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