Japan: Assessing Changing Security Situations in the Asia-Pacific

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This short essay aims to analyze the evolution of Japan’s perspective on security in East Asia over a period of ten years as articulated during the annual Shangri-La Dialogues. More specifically, eight speeches from 2005 to 2015 will be considered for this analysis.1 As will be demonstrated, two overall phases can be detected in this period. The first centers on the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the region whereas the second phase shifts towards maritime and territorial issues. Furthermore, in the second half of the latter period, a change in the perspective on Japan’s own role in these security issues becomes evident. Aspects of the security environment that have remained mostly unchanged will be briefly mentioned as well.

Security assessment – Phase 1

In 2005, the main security issue under discussion was the proliferation of WMD as illustrated by the “situation in the Korean Peninsula” (Ohno 2005 [6]), more specifically North Korea’s “development, deployment and proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and its means of delivery, that is, ballistic missiles” [6]. North Korea’s behavior and attitude (announcement of withdrawal from NPT and declaration of possession of nuclear weapons) were seen as great destabilizing factors in the region. Japan in this environment was described as a “core member“ [6] in non-proliferation measures, a task of importance especially when coupled with the threat of terrorism, although this security issue was explicated more in later years. At this point, disaster relief and maritime security activities were considered “new areas of cooperation” [6], thus they were only of secondary concern for Japan.

The nuclear challenge was echoed in 2007 by then-Minister of Defense Kyuma Fumio. Besides the emphasis on Japan’s “exclusively defense-oriented policy” (Kyuma 2007 [4]) and non-nuclear adherence, he also mentions the initiation of a Ballistic Missiles Defense System as Japan’s response to the “threat of Ballistic Missiles” [4]. The nuclear threat was in this context furthermore explicitly linked to “international terrorism organizations” [4]. While Kyuma emphasized regional cooperation as well, what was absent from his speech was any mention of territorial and maritime issues. Although in 2005, Japan foreshadowed her future policies (“We fully recognize that littoral states have primary responsibilities, and that activities for securing maritime transportation should be conducted within relevant domestic and international laws” [6]), as pointed out above, they probably only played a secondary role at that time.

Security assessment – Phase 2

This changed when Japan shifted her policy away from WMD towards maritime security issues. This shift can be seen in 2010, when Kitazawa Toshimi introduced the notion of the “ocean as a global commons” (Kitazawa 2010 [2]). The whole speech focuses on maritime security with emphasis on these “characteristics of global commons as interdependence and globalization progress” [2] being of concern to all nations involved. Kitazawa concedes that in Northeast Asia, “while non-actor activity such as piracy and terrorism is infrequent, there are still traditional/conventional destabilizing concerns” [2] and that in Southeast Asia territorial issues are the main cause of concern. He furthermore relates to two maritime incidents, the first about Chinese helicopters during training that approached Japanese MSDF vessels and the second about the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan by North Korea. He concludes that “in the current security environment, issues such as anti-terrorism, disaster relief, and causes of instability against maritime safety have created nebulous conditions that are neither peacetime nor contingencies” [2] so that Japan must adapt her defense capabilities accordingly.

This was manifested in the revised National Defence Program Guidelines of that same year – which were mentioned at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2011 –, that stated that Japan has “moved beyond the idea of ensuring military deterrence through the simple existence of a defense force and [has] proclaimed the concept of achieving national security through actual defense activities” (Kitazawa 2011 [3]). This posed to be of significance because it set forth the path to be continued later on (see Abe 2014 [1] for example). However, from here on emphasis on adherence to international law became stronger as well (see below). The year was further significant because it led to an emphasis on disaster relief and strengthened trust towards others due to the Great East Japan Earthquake. Ironically though, Kitazawa brought up a point regarding territories to the Southwest of Japan – the so-called Nansei Shotō islands, of which the Ryūkyū and Senkaku islands are part of (see here) –, stating that “[b]y stockpiling and assembling needed resources and equipment on the islands, which are with various infrastructure and excellent geographical conditions, they can be a base of international disaster relief” ([3]) and thus linking territorial issues with disaster relief.2

In 2012, it was reiterated that “the importance of the maritime domain is increasing nowadays” (Watanabe 2012 [8]). Territorial issues as a destabilizing factor played an important role in that. Watanabe described disputes in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines as “reckless behaviours by those on board who are directly involved” [8] and thus pushed for a “Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea” [8]. This Code of Conduct was also mentioned by Onodera (2013) [7] who as well urged “adherence of maritime laws” since the Japanese assessment was that some “issues […] over resources and territories[…] could easily escalate into a military conflict”. He also took up again the nuclear threat posed by North Korea stating that it “undermine[s] the peace and security of the international community” [7], a sentiment only briefly mentioned in 2012 – although it is referred to both times only as a side note, thus indicating less aggression from and activities of North Korea.

While Japan was more and more concerned with maritime law enforcement and the appeal to adhere to international law, she also decided to take a more ‘proactive’ role in that endeavor from 2013 on. Thus Abe (2014) [1] spoke of “Japan’s new banner of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’” that was based on the observation that “[w]e are in an era in which it is no longer possible for any one nation to secure its own peace only by itself ” (see also [2] and Nakatani 2015 [5]). In an environment described as “facing the threat of weapons of mass destruction and attempts to change the status quo through force or coercion” [1], it was “incumbent” [1] upon Japan to extend her defensive capabilities to encompass collective self-defense and more thorough international cooperation, “including ODA […] and defence-equipment cooperation” [1] for which ten patrol vessel provided to the Philippine Coast Guard were an example.

Nakatani (2015) [5], in the most recent Japanese speech, emphasizes all the points brought up by Abe in the previous year. Two new considerations concern “addressing emerging strategic domains such as cyber and outer space” since “security risks can instantly spread across the globe” and “wider promotion of common rules and laws” [5], not just appealing to them. China’s activities in the South China Sea were also raising concerns in both [1] and [2].

What has been prevalent in each speech to a greater or lesser extent was the overall emphasis on shared values and appeal to adherence to international law in the region, and the importance of US presence in the region with the intention to foster US-Japan partnership in order to achieve stability in the region. This was ultimately linked to bilateral and trilateral cooperation pacts centered around the United States in order to secure Asia in a communal effort. For instance, Australia and India are partners in consideration for cooperation in security issues, although, as Abe (2014) pointed out, “the time has come to place emphasis on ASEAN”, thus indicating a closer tie-in of all Asian countries for the security of the region as well.


All in all, Japan’s shift from the prioritization of the perceived threat of WMD towards a prioritization of maritime issues reflects both reduced aggression by the main perpetrator of the nuclear threat, North Korea, as well as most importantly changing dynamics with regard to territorial issues, mainly between China and Japan as well as between China and other neighboring countries. The renewed perception of Japan’s role in these issues, as formulated in Japan’s newly adopted “Proactive Contribution to Peace”, is in line with the accentuation of maritime issues, arguably prompting Japanese policy to move away from an “exclusively-defensive” defense as has been maintained until recently.




All speeches are available in the online archive of the Shangri-La Dialogue: http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-s-la-s-dialogue/archive.

Personal Comment: What a great cover.


[1] Abe, Shinzo (2014). Keynote Address: Shinzo Abe. Speech presented at the 13th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 30 May – 1 June 2014.

[2] Kitazawa, Toshimi (2010). New Dimensions of Security: Toshimi Kitazawa. Speech presented at the 9th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 4 – 6 June 2010.

[3] Kitazawa, Toshima (2011). New Military Doctrines and Capabilities in Asia: Toshimi Kitazawa. Speech presented at the 10th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 3 – 5 June 2011.

[4] Kyuma, Fumio (2007). Nuclear challenges: Fumio Kyuma. Speech presented at the 6th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 1 – 3 June 2007.

[5] Nakatani, Gen (2015). New Forms of Security Collaboration in Asia: Gen Nakatani. Speech presented at the 14th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 29 – 31 May 2015.

[6] Ohno, Yoshinori (2005). Responding to WMD Challenges in the Asia-Pacific: Diplomacy and Deterrence: H.E. Yoshino Ohno. Speech presented at the 4th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 3 – 5 June 2005.

[7] Onodera, Itsunori (2013). Defending National Interests; Preventing Conflict: Itsunori Onodera. Speech presented at the 12th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 31 May – 2 June 2013.

[8] Watanabe, Shu (2012). Protecting Maritime Freedoms: Shu Watanabe. Speech presented at the 11th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 1 – 3 June 2012.

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