The Japanese government makes no secret of its intensifying security concerns. The Ministry of Defense’s most recent annual white paper includes the assessment that, “The security environment surrounding Japan has become increasingly severe, with various challenges and destabilizing factors becoming more tangible and acute.” The report is also explicit about the source of these challenges. The most immediate danger is identified as North Korea, whose “military development such as its nuclear and missile development constitute unprecedented, serious and imminent threats to the security of Japan.” Second on the list is China, which is singled out for the non-transparent strengthening of its armed forces, as well as the increase in its military activities in the vicinity of Japan. Lastly, the white paper notes that “Russia has been modernizing its forces including its nuclear capability not only in the Europe region but in the periphery of Japan,” and that close attention needs to be paid to these developments.
The country faces not only the individual security challenges posed by North Korea, China, and Russia, but also the danger of increased cooperation between these three nuclear-armed neighbors. What is more, at just the time when Tokyo needs reliable partners, it finds itself dealing with a South Korean government that it considers chronically untrustworthy and a U.S. administration that often seems less like a loyal friend and more like an increasingly expensive supplier of commercial security services.
Having identified the nature of this problem, the remainder of this essay focuses on explaining Japan’s strategy for addressing it. It does so by adapting Lord Ismay’s famous description of the fundamental goal of NATO as being to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”13 Correspondingly, Japan’s current strategy can be characterized as aiming to keep the North Koreans and Chinese down, the Americans in, and the Russians neutral. After outlining the details of each part of this strategy, the essay will identify the main challenges to overcome in its implementation.