How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Changed Japan’s Security Policy

At the start of 2022, during his policy address to the Diet Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio introduced the concept of “diplomacy anchored in realism for the new era” as the guiding principle of his government’s foreign and national security policy. In particular, Kishida speculated that “the resiliency of Japanese diplomacy will be tested” and affirmed his determination to lead the country’s foreign and national security policy as the diplomat-in-chief.

Indeed, it has turned out that his prediction of serious tests awaiting Japan’s foreign policy was an understatement. Just over a month after Kishida gave his policy address, Russia invaded Ukraine, putting Europe on the brink of the first large-scale ground war since World War II. Closer to Japan’s own neighborhood, North Korea has picked up the pace of its ballistic missile tests, most recently firing a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 24. Needless to say, Tokyo continues to face pressure from China’s activities in East China Sea. Japan even faced an air incursion by a Russian helicopter on March 2, prompting a Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighter to respond.

So far, though, Kishida has remained steady, leading Japan as it navigates through these security challenges. He surprised many by standing firmly alongside the United States and Europe, remaining in lockstep in imposing hefty financial and economic sanctions against Russia. He seems undeterred by Russia’s unilateral declaration that it was canceling peace treaty negotiations with Japan. He even suggested that Japan could not maintain “business as usual” relations with Russia given the current situation. If anything, Kishida has been doubling down on Japan’s efforts to align its position with the U.S and its European partners.

In addition, he has actively sought opportunities to reach out to the countries in the Indo-Pacific to shore up support for Ukraine. By putting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the broader context of upholding broader international norms, Kishida has tried to send a message that what is happening to Ukraine – a powerful neighbor changing the status quo through the use of force – could happen to any country in the Indo-Pacific region that has been facing pressure from China’s assertive behavior. In other words, the intense diplomatic efforts to roll back Russian aggression against Ukraine that are currently taking place could also be employed in the Indo-Pacific region if China attempts to use force to change the status quo in the region.

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There is no question that the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove Kishida to recalibrate his foreign policy priorities. For the short term, Kishida clearly chose to align Japan more closely with the U.S., G-7, and European partners. He is keenly aware that China is watching the international reaction to the current Ukraine crisis very closely. As much as Kishida desires to resolve Japan’s lingering territorial dispute vis-à-vis Russia and conclude a peace treaty with Moscow, now is not the time to appear ambivalent toward Moscow because of a distant hope that Tokyo’s softer stance could enhance Japan’s negotiating position. If Japan wants the international community to support Tokyo’s position in the event China turns to force in the East China Sea or Taiwan Strait, Japan needs to stand firm on its support for fellow democracies and the universal values that the Russian invasion attempts to undercut.

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More importantly, the current crisis in Ukraine will have a significant impact on the ongoing process to revise Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS). The current NSS was announced in December 2013, a year after Abe Shinzo returned to the premiership, and has remained unchanged since then. As Kishida’s government embarks on its first revision, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the international response that followed highlight a few issues that will be important for Japan.

First is the importance of Japan steadfastly reaffirming its commitment to “uphold, maintain, and protect the international order based on universal values and rules.” In particular, given China’s increasing pressure vis-à-vis Taiwan, predatory economic practices in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, flagrant abuse of human rights in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and (most recently) Beijing’s show of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is likely that the new NSS will more explicitly call out China’s problematic behavior as something that goes directly against Japan’s national interest.

Second, the new NSS would likely double down on the need to enhance the Japan-U.S. alliance. In particular, the increasing importance of Japan’s efforts to strengthen its security cooperation with other U.S. allies and partners around the world will likely be emphasized as Japan continues its effort to realize “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept.

Third, economic security and related issues will likely loom large in the new NSS. The speed with which the U.S., G-7, NATO, and EU countries decoupled Russia from international trade as well as the international financial transaction network suggests that the “decoupling” is possible, but not without economic and financial hits. As the global strategic environment appear to be increasingly bipolar – divided between the bloc led by U.S., Japan, and the liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific and Europe on the hand and the camp led by China, Russia and their followers on the other – it will be important for Japan to be ready for still more “decoupling” possibilities.

Finally, the ongoing Ukraine crisis only confirms the necessity for Japan to bolster its own efforts to build its defense capabilities. While continuing the discussion of thought-provoking concepts like “nuclear-sharing” and “enemy base attack capabilities” remains important, what is even more important is advancing the discussion over ways in which Japan can invest more effectively and efficiently in defense. Such a conversation must include exploring how Japan can leverage technologies in non-defense sector for national security use; how Japanese defense industries can or should be reformed to optimize its capacity; and how the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) can be modernized to meet today as well as tomorrow’s security challenges.

As the prospect for having to manage two “Cold Wars” simultaneously looms large, the stakes for revising the National Security Strategy just got higher for Kishida.