Illustration: Craig Stephens
James Borton
James Borton

For Japan to be a regional security leader, it must first clean house

  • As geopolitical tensions reshape Asia’s security architecture, Japan is angling for a greater role, with America’s blessing
  • But first, it must settle its domestic issues, from resistance to militarisation, to the Unification Church political crisis and structural economic challenges
Japan’s hosting of its first International Fleet Review in 20 years was supposed to send a potent signal to Asia that the country was ready to take up the mantle as a security force to be reckoned with in the region. With tensions amplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s ambitions for Taiwan and North Korea’s unpredictability, the region’s security architecture is due for a serious shake-up.
Indeed, Japan is set to increase its military capabilities, double its defence budget and ascend to a more important security role in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that Russia’s invasion had shaken the “foundations of the international order not only in Europe but also in Asia”, leaving the world at a crossroads.
Add to this North Korea’s surge of ballistic missile launches and China’s sabre-rattling, and it is evident that a new security role for Tokyo may be long overdue.

The fleet review was the first step towards Japan’s new ambitious goals, mustering 38 vessels, 18 of them from allied and friendly nations. Among them were not only Japan’s traditional allies, but notably also participants such as India, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea, highlighting that Seoul and Tokyo had chosen practical considerations over traditional, deep-running tensions.

While this signifies a growing desire, if born of necessity, to cooperate on security issues in an increasingly unstable international security environment, Beijing flatly refused to participate.

Tokyo’s posture marks a serious departure from pacificism, a pillar of its foreign policy since World War II. But the Ukraine war, which emboldened China and North Korea to act more aggressively, is also emboldening Tokyo to step out of Washington’s shadow in the Asia-Pacific.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force’s multipurpose destroyer Izumo leading the fleet during the International Fleet Review at Sagami Bay, off Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, on November 6. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
Japan now seeks to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability, train additional maritime security personnel and increase cooperation with regional partners, offering US$2 billion in help over the next three years to like-minded countries in the region.

In the past, the United States regarded attempts by Japan to forge a leading role in Asia with suspicion. But as China continues to gain military, economic and diplomatic ground, the US seems, for the first time, to welcome a sharing of its security burden for the Asia-Pacific.

In September 2020, then-prime minister Yoshihide Suga chose Hanoi and Jakarta for his first official overseas visits, rather than Washington. Tellingly, Washington considered this not a snub, but an obvious and expected move within the reshaping of the region’s security architecture.


Indonesia and Japan boost naval security ties amid concern over China’s South China Sea actions

Indonesia and Japan boost naval security ties amid concern over China’s South China Sea actions

Tokyo is also deepening its ties with Asean countries when it comes to rule of law and security. Japan stepped up in 2016 when it unveiled its “Vientiane Vision”, a cooperative pact to strengthen maritime security that has been described as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ first defence initiative.

During a bilateral meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this year, the leaders of Japan and Asean renewed their pledge for closer maritime security, spurred in part by increased tensions over Taiwan.

While Tokyo’s recent posturing is a signal to China and North Korea, Japan has important domestic hurdles to overcome if its new-found rhetoric is to have the desired effect. Tokyo might find out that it is easier to challenge a paradigm on an international level than to do so at home. While US unreliability during the Trump administration and the Russian invasion of Ukraine did much to strengthen the case for boosting national defences among the Japanese public, militarisation remains controversial.

Japan is also dealing with several domestic crises, with arguably the most destabilising one being the ongoing controversy over the Unification Church. Shinzo Abe’s assassination has rattled Japanese society, with Kishida ordering a probe into the religious organisation.

Church or cult? Abe murder spotlights South Korea’s ‘pseudo-religious’ groups

Unfortunately, the timing of the political squabble over the church could hardly have come at a more dangerous time, as it is forcing the prime minister to redirect his attention to domestic issues rather than allowing a clear focus on geostrategic and pressing defence questions – as well as sparking fears that the investigation could be used to purge political opponents.

Kishida’s sudden announcement of absence from the COP27 UN climate change summit because of the domestic crisis speaks volumes, as the prime minister walks a political tightrope. The resignation of the economic revitalisation minister over links with the Unification Church has added to Japan’s uncertain economic outlook, and threatens to engulf Japanese politics in a way that could cripple Tokyo.


Japanese PM Kishida orders investigation into Unification Church as his approval ratings plummet

Japanese PM Kishida orders investigation into Unification Church as his approval ratings plummet
The country is also dealing with long-term structural issues that could affect its defence spending. Japan’s post-pandemic recovery has been more subdued than many of its developed-economy peers. A weak yen, diminishing returns on the manufacturing sector and a global financial slowdown all contribute to Japan’s bleak economic outlook.

This is more than likely to affect Japan’s defence industry, which is struggling to keep its head above water, only generating razor-thin profit margins on investments due to high competition and little international experience.

Despite this doom and gloom, Japan could still make good on its rhetoric. Yet time is a factor as the international environment is undergoing rapid fundamental shifts. Japan must not get bogged down by the rigidity of “politics as usual” on the domestic front if it has any hopes for a regional security role. But before it can become a pillar of the international order, Japan must first clean house.

James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground