Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, shown here during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on September 16, 2020, has prefaced Japan's latest defense white paper. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

White papers on defense often offer a glimpse into a country’s outlook on future security trends and strategies. As highly anticipated public documents, they explain a particular government’s foresight to meet challenges while outlining its national position based on past practices.

Japan is no exception to this, with its defense white papers offering critical insight into the country’s perception and planned trajectory. 

For instance, Japan’s 2020 defense white paper identified that a “regional cooperation framework in the security realm has not been sufficiently institutionalized” in the Indo-Pacific region. To mitigate this, Japan, among other developments, hosted the second ministerial meet of the Quadrilateral (India, Japan, Australia, US) Security Dialogue in Tokyo in October 2020.

Tokyo also signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with India in September 2020 and the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with Australia in November 2020. It became an active party in this year’s first Quad Leadership Summit in March, while also leading new initiatives – such as the Japan-India-Australia-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) – and engaging deeply in growing trilateral cooperation.

Importantly, Japan has also sought to improve bilateral relations with the US since Joe Biden became president. In this context, what does Japan’s latest defense white paper, released this month, indicate about the future of its security calculus in the region? 

Defense of Japan 2021,” released simultaneously in English and Japanese, highlights the Japanese security outlook, defense strategies and the challenges that Tokyo faces in a tightly contested geopolitical environment.

The 2021 white paper is not a major shift away from last year’s document, but continues on a similar trajectory to explain Tokyo’s emerging strategic thinking, strategic dilemmas that the country faces and its urge to stay prepared in face of these challenges.

“Defense of Japan 2021” is therefore critical as an exclusive document explaining Tokyo’s rising or newfound concerns on Taiwan, making it one of the first official security-centric documents to align the security interests of Japan and Taiwan. 

As with all recent defense papers, China and North Korea continue to be primary security concerns in Tokyo’s calculus. In fact, at the very beginning of the 2021 white paper, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi highlights how both China and North Korea have emerged as major security concerns (threats) not only to Japan but also to the international rules-based order.

The document highlights China as a maritime threat and notes how Beijing’s “unilateral attempts to change the status quo in [the] East and South China Seas” are a cause of immense caution for Tokyo, which the new and “problematic” Chinese Coast Guard Law (CCGL) is only accentuating.

Similarly, the paper claims, North Korea’s continued and rapid ballistic-missile development persists as a grave threat to Japan’s security.

With Japan set on continuing to promote its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision further, the white paper identifies cooperation with partner countries – especially the US – and advancement of its own defense capabilities as essential requirements.

Importantly, the white paper highlights the need for closer cooperation with Japan’s trilateral partners India and Australia as well. In a move showing Tokyo’s expanded geopolitical landscape, the paper identifies Europe – especially the UK, France and Germany – along with Canada and New Zealand as vital players. 

The white paper communicates an urgent need for Japan to prepare for its defense. It rehashes the ongoing debate on Japan’s bid to move away from its pacifist constitution, which gained traction under Shinzo Abe and is seeing “continuity” under his successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Such overtures tie together with its balancing attempts at coming across as a “peace-loving nation” while also “diligently” engaging in national defense.

For instance, last December, Japan approved a defense budget of 5.34 trillion yen (US$52.6 billion) for fiscal year 2021; while the budget increased by only 1.1% from 2020, it marked steady growth in defense spending for the ninth year in a row.

In May this year, Kishi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato highlighted that Japan is no longer concerned with ensuring defense spending stays below 1% of gross domestic product, as has been the general practice since 1976.

This development indicates and emphasizes the growing distrust Japan feels toward China, especially in the maritime sphere. With sections in the 2021 white paper being dedicated to China’s activities around the Senkaku Islands and the CCGL, it is clear that Japan views Beijing’s revisionist tendencies with immediate alarm.

Taiwan security

In this context, for the first time, Japan references the question of Taiwan and its security, stating that unprecedented focus on the same “with a sense of crisis” is needed.

Tokyo claims that Beijing’s growing assertive actions around Taiwan, Xi’s focus on reunification that does not rule out force, and an intensifying US-China rivalry are signs highlighting the potential for crisis in the region, particularly as the “overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting to China’s favor.” 

Tokyo has been increasingly explicit over Taiwan’s security in the recent past, recognizing that this is inherently tied to Japan’s own national security based on Taiwan’s close proximity to Okinawa.

Policymakers in Japan have termed the security of the Western Pacific, linking it with Taiwan and Okinawa, as a key strategic priority, based on Japan’s rising threat perception regarding China (and Russia).

While Okinawa offers critical military advantage for the Japanese Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces and American maritime presence, a strong security alignment with Taipei is crucial to Tokyo’s wider security ambit in the Western Pacific to defy or pose any challenge to China’s unwanted adventurism over Taiwan. The 2021 white paper makes such concerns rather explicit. 

Concurrently, the document also marks the US-China economic and technological rivalry as a security concern for Tokyo; in this regard, Japan’s focus on ensuring the success of the SCRI to create Asia-driven sustainable alternative supply chains post-Covid that are not dependent on China can be expected to increase.

Regional ‘threats’

North Korea – as the China-DPRK Friendship Treaty is renewed – as an “imminent” threat to Japan’s security is another important focus of the white paper. With Beijing-Pyongyang ties standing the test of time, Japan’s own partnerships with “like-minded” states takes on added importance.

Importantly, as in previous years, Russia too has received focus in Japan’s white paper as Moscow modernizes its military with a focus on space; Russian activities in Japan’s vicinity and increased military cooperation with China are identified as points of caution.

Beyond such geopolitical concerns, the 2021 white paper also, possibly for the first time exclusively, contains a section on threats posed by climate change, linking it to the security of the region. This clear recognition of climate change as a national security imperative suggests that moving forward, environmental concerns will take prominence in Japan’s international outlook.

For instance, it can be expected that Indo-Pacific forums like the SCRI and Japanese initiatives like the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) will take on a more focused green-growth approach. 

Furthermore, building a Multi-Domain Defense Force is marked as a continued goal for Japan in fiscal year 2021; this entails building capabilities in the space, cyber, electromagnetic, maritime, air, missile defense, maneuvering, deployment and sustainability domains.

In terms of foreign policy, deeper engagement with Indo-Pacific partner states – and powers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa – is seen as crucial to building a well-rounded defense strategy that allows for promotion of national interests.

With general elections due in October – and the upcoming Olympics taking place in Japan amid divided public opinion – the focus on showing Japan’s consistency in maintaining its regional security status has become crucial to Prime Minister Suga.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has sought to build on this narrative, with an LDP panel in April asking for an increase in the defense budget to mobilize the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) further, especially in the aftermath of the CCGL.

How Tokyo manages to build on its threat perceptions – be it China, North Korea or even Russia – while improving both its own defense capabilities and ties with partner states remains to be seen. Yet it is clear that Japan is no longer looking to take a back seat to its own protection vis-à-vis alliances or constitutional limitations. 

To summarize, the 2021 white paper explicates not only Japan’s future security outlook but also raises an alarm bell for the region on China. Tokyo’s concerns are becoming more China-focused, and Taiwan’s place is continuously growing in Japan’s security calculus.

What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which Tokyo can embrace Taiwan’s security and advocate for a collective security umbrella for Taipei.

Nevertheless, seeking partnerships and more specific strategic alignments are distinct features of its 2021 white paper, leaving an encouraging note for India and many other countries in Asia and beyond. 

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.