Japan in 2023: Upgrading Strategic Capabilities, Assuming Great Power Status

Japan in 2023:  Upgrading Strategic Capabilities, Assuming Great Power Status


The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has exacerbated the super-power rivalry, which every day offers moves, deeds, nuances, declarations leading to a clear picture that it has taken, in fact, the form of a serious confrontation between the main contenders, i.e. the USA, China, Russia and the European Union, as well as of the reactivation of almost all latent conflicts in different areas. Concomitantly, concrete signs of acquiring of middle-power force are quite vivid in all regions of the world, seconded by the consolidation of the regional-power status of important participants at the new restructuring of the world.

Despite growing militarization and recently formed security pacts, the only certainty is that – at least for the time being – no open conflicts between the contenders have arisen. On the other hand, it is obvious that all of them are striving, in this stage, to get allies either to maintain the current status-quo of a single supper-power gained by the USA or to consolidate the multilateralism, on which the United Nations has been built.

If we take into consideration Asia – Pacific, Japanis the most recent example of managing to lay down the grounds of transition from the regional power role into a great power status by adding the strategic and defense dimensions to the already existing consolidated economic one.

Tokyo has outlined its ambitions to play a more active role in regional security, saying it wants to "achieve a new balance in international relations" by working more closely with the United States and its allies to achieve "a Free and Open Indo-Pacific". To this avail, the country participated in a NATO Summit for the first time at the Alliance’s 2022 event in Madrid. Furthermore, Prime Minister Kishida signaled that Japan is looking to deepen its relationship with NATO.

The new National Security Strategy, along with the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Buildup Program update Japan's strategic vision in consideration of the changed international context, an update in line with the strategic trajectory that Tokyo has been taking for several years, as initiated by the late Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe.

During the press conference regarding his recent visits to France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America, Premier Kishidastressed that “we are now in a severe security environment, with Russian aggression against Ukraine among other factors, and that the global economy is also facing the possibility of downside risk. (…) Japan recently revised three security-related documents, including our National Security Strategy, and that we clearly laid out concrete measures for the reinforcement of our defense capabilities, which serve as the backing to those revisions.”

Further, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Nippon Premier in his speech on foreign policy clarified that the new approach of Japan has taken into consideration three major factors: “First, the international community is at a historic turning point. The free, open, and stable international order that we have dedicated ourselves to upholding is now in grave danger. Second, Japan is resolved to proactively create peace and prosperity and a free and open order worldwide. Third, in the course of undertaking such efforts, Japan and the United States, as the most important ally and closest of friends, need to engage in further strengthening our bond.

In the light of Prime Minister Kishida’s statements and actions, it becomes obvious that Japan has chosen to strengthen its strategic capabilities. The new documents outlining national security are a step further in the revision of Tokyo's posture amid the changing international context.

Asia-Pacific is now a region where itsmilitary profile has radically changed, being a process still in evolution, with ingredients of dangerous end-results, which determined the Asia-Pacific countries, but People’s Republic of China and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to have a moderate or accepting position on the “New Japan”. The historical hesitation caused by the Japan’s attitude in the region during the Second World War has been changed into an aspiration to have an additional support to maintain the peace and stability in the region.

The reaction and position of China has been generated by the direct and indirect statements and hints from Tokyo that the new defense dimension of Japan is coming as a response to China’s assertive policy, being regarded as main target.

As one may expect, China – Japan’s largest trading partner – responded to the Japanese announcement with a strong statement: “Japan has significantly altered its security policy […] this inevitably raises the suspicion that Japan is deviating from its path of peaceful post-war development, which is bound to arouse vigilance and opposition from all people who love peace”.

Recently however, on February 22, Tokyo hosted the first Japan-China security dialogue in four years. On this occasion, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong declared that "The international security situation has undergone vast changes and we are seeing the return of unilateralism, protectionism, and a Cold War mentality”, yet the two countries should work together so that they "do not stagnate, do not go off course, do not regress, and move steadily along the right track”. As a result of the discussions, Japan and China convened to work towards launching a direct communication line for security starting by the spring of 2023.

Indeed, the importance the two countries attach to maintaining both official dialogue and emergency back-up channels signals their mature diplomacy and vast experience are in full swing. The trend is worthy to be sustained by the USA, Europe and Asia as a positive start to avoid spreading in Asia of the danger already created by the aggression of Russia on Ukraine.

Japan is now engaged in highly effervescent diplomatic actions to convince the world about its new power project and, certainly, to gain allies or – at least – support upon the “New Japan” vision. It is in the interest of Japan to present to the world its new and more robust security and profile strategy as a follow up of emerging out of the confines of the Second World War and becoming a normal world state actor. Within this context, it is obvious that Japan is acting to consolidate the engagements with USA and Europe as well as with like-minded countries from Indo-Pacific – a concept lounged by Tokyo in 2007, when the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe firstly introduced the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. It was only three years later, in 2010, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the region as “Indo-Pacific”, emphasizing Abe’s concept has gained international momentum and also revealing a US tilt towards Japan and its geo-strategic agenda towards the region. In 2017, the Trump administration officially started to refer to the region as the “Indo-Pacific”.

While holding the Presidency of G7, Japan presents itself to the world as a country with new capabilities, a new status at international level, a country ultimately involved in significant diplomatic actions not only of regional but as well of global magnitude.

So far, for 2023, Japan marked several significant milestone in its new international endeavours. On January 31, during Fumio Kishida’s meeting with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, the two leaders agreed to “elevate current Japan-NATO cooperation to new heights that reflect the challenges of a new era.” One may expect Japan’s relations with NATO will be boosted in the following period.

During February 8-12, the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has visited Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines agreed to increase defense ties, allowing Japanese troops greater access to the Philippines territory, a strengthening of overall security cooperation and the transfer of more of defense equipment and technologies. The agreement is seen as a step towards broader military cooperation between Tokyo and Manila. A more assertive presence of other contenders in the region could lead to similar deals between Japan and other Southeast Asian nations, where competition for geopolitical influence has increased. Roughly a week later, on February 21, Japan’s Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa held a meeting with Ambassadors and representatives of Southeast Asian countries to Japan. During the meeting, the Nippon Foreign Minister reaffirmed “Japan’s commitment to take the lead in supporting the mainstreaming of the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-pacific (AOIP) in order to maintain and strengthen a free and open international order based on the rule of law.” Certainly, for Japan, ASEAN is not only the area where vital lines of transportation, communication and natural resources exist, but also an important geostrategic area for Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). In context, it may become challenging to mark the boundaries between Japan’s FOIP as its strategic priority and the importance it attaches to ASEAN Centrality.

In the same note, two significant meetings between leaders of Japan and the Federated States of Micronesia (head of government level) and Japan and the Marshall Islands (foreign ministers level) have been held in Tokyo. Indeed, in the light of the historical ties between Japan and the two Pacific islands, the meetings are important not only on bilateral level, but also regionally, since they could be interpreted to emphasize Japan’s availability to further strengthen its already excellent relations with the island-nations of the Pacific.

A milestone event for the Japanese diplomacy in 2023 will be the G7 Summit at Hiroshima, between May 19-21. Certainly, the expectations are high: according to the Japanese Premier, “I would like to make the summit a place for leaders to show a strong commitment (…) not to repeat the horrors of nuclear war and oppose military aggression (...) At the next summit, the G7 will demonstrate that it leads efforts to create a new order based on universal values and rules."

The world is expecting the end of the Russia’s war on Ukraine as soon as possible. At that point, for sure the members of the United Nations will analyze the inefficiency of the safeguard of the international peace, not only in Ukraine’s case, and will come up with due proposals to reshape and reactivate the organization. The door to the Security Council or to other different top replaced structures will be opened to Japan and other important players from Europe, North and South America, Middle East, Africa and Asia- Pacific.



The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.