Is Japan's New Defense Plan Ambitious Enough?


Dec 6, 2018

Members of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force 1st Airborne Brigade descend from a CH-47 helicopter during an annual new year military exercise at Narashino exercise field in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, Japan, January 12, 2018

Members of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force 1st Airborne Brigade descend from a CH-47 helicopter in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, Japan, January 12, 2018

Photo by Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

By Michael J. Green and Jeffrey W. Hornung

This commentary originally appeared on War on the Rocks on December 6, 2018.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan may have the clearest strategic vision of any world leader facing China today. In his first National Security Strategy (PDF) document, issued in 2013, he outlined an approach based on external balancing in the form of a closer U.S.-Japanese alliance and expanded outreach to like-minded states across the region, particularly India and Australia. In 2014, he compelled President Xi Jinping to agree to a meeting without conceding to Xi's demands that Japan acknowledge there is a dispute over the Senkaku Islands. He turned the corner with China this year in a visit to Beijing in October, during which the Chinese side agreed to Japanese terms for international standards of transparency in China's Belt and Road Initiative. Abe has also taken major steps to enhance Japan's own capabilities in terms of internal balancing, revising the interpretation of Article Nine of Japan's constitution to expand the ability of Japan's Self-Defense Forces to operate jointly with U.S. or other maritime democracies.

The next big step in Abe's grand strategy will be the revision of Japan's National Defense Program Guidelines later this month. This is a 10-year defense policy document that will connect Japan's National Security Strategy to a new Mid-Term Defense Plan that lays out the capabilities needed to meet the goals outlined in the National Defense Program Guidelines. The last Mid-Term Defense Plan was in 2013, but a revision is necessary because of the increasingly complex security environment surrounding Japan. The changes envisioned for the two documents, however, may be too cautious given the nature of these security challenges facing Japan and a number of domestic challenges that increasingly constrain the parameters within which Tokyo can act. Below, we lay out the external and domestic challenges and posit four possible enhancements that might address them.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.