Kishida’s New Era Realism in National Security and India Diplomacy

The Ukraine war and double threat from China and North Korea in Japan’s backyard have pushed Tokyo to update national security plans and step up India ties.

On December 16, 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s cabinet approved a new National Security Strategy (NSS). Based on the updated NSS, the cabinet also adopted the National Defense Strategy (formerly, National Defense Program Guidelines) and Defense Buildup Program (formerly, Medium-Term Defense Program).

In concrete security terms, this move will, among other aspects:

  • Augment the defense budget to 2 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027. That is in line with the current agreed target of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states;
  • Improve Japan’s counterstrike (“enemy base strike“) capabilities, for example through acquiring US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles which have a range of more than 1,500 km, and substantially increasing stockpile spare parts and other munitions;
  • Develop cyber-warfare capabilities, improve air self-defense capabilities, and reorganize the Self-Defense Force (SDF);
  • Allow enhanced military presence in the southernmost islands to counter China’s tactics; and
  • Facilitate the review of the three principles on transfer of defense equipment and technology. This would include their implementation guidelines, formulated during Shinzo Abe’s second term, for the export of arms subject to three principles.

In this context, how is the new national security paradigm relevant for Japan’s diplomacy for a “new era”?

Moreover, how far do Tokyo’s ties with India factor into this new strategy?

The US in Kishida’s New Era National Security Calculus

Several factors have forced Japan to proactively prepare for any potential untoward military endeavors in East Asia affecting its national security and sovereignty. Looming large among them are China’s increasingly aggressive tactics in the neighborhood, the instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea’s nuclear resurgence.

For this reason, Japan’s new NSS has labeled China as the “greatest strategic challenge.” The Korean threat is referred to as “graver, more imminent threat than before,” and Russia as a “serious security concern.”

Thus, Japan will seek an integrated defense with its treaty ally the United States – which under a mutual defense treaty is pledged to defend Japanese territory from external attack. Likewise, it will work toward enhanced interoperability between the SDF and US forces. The United States has also hailed the new steps as a means to modernize the US-Japan alliance.

Regional and National Security Considerations

At the same time, the revision of the aforementioned three key national security documents not only highlights Japan’s decisive shift from its pacifist approach since the end of World War II. It also consolidates Kishida’s “realism diplomacy for a new era.”

The latter emphasizes the inclusion of the three pillars of universal values, resolution of global challenges, and resolute defense of national interests. Kishida’s latest decision has certainly pushed forward Abe’s pragmatism and (as yet unfulfilled) agenda to empower Japan’s national security ambitions. Nevertheless, the relevant amendments in Japan’s Occupation-era postwar constitution are still a long way off.

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi’s December 16 statement clearly outlines the significance of the NSS-reinforced “comprehensive defense architecture” in strengthening Japan’s diplomatic capabilities. This includes achieving a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP).

Russia’s Ukraine invasion and Putin’s threat of nuclear warfare in tandem have concretized Japan’s concerns. Adding to that, China’s growing confluence with autocratic regimes, as well as Xi Jinping‘s long-in-coming totalitarian solidification, have enlarged these fears, particularly for East Asia.

The geopolitical considerations have therefore accelerated Kishida’s “realism diplomacy” and “vision for peace.” Intentionally, these also include a special plan for the FOIP by next spring (2023). His approach places utmost emphasis on deterrence to protect Japan’s interests and an expanded security role for Japan. As such, they provide a way to balance power in the hegemonic transition game afoot in the Indo-Pacific due to China’s rise.

Accelerating Convergence with India

Boosting security and economic cooperation with like-minded states such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and India has been one of the most potent ways to counterbalance regional instability. And first and foremost, that has protected Japan. This need has been driven largely by China’s attempts at changing the status quo.

India’s status today is unique. It is a largely autonomous partner of the West. Moreover, it is a long-standing partner of Russia, and a member of China-dominated forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Finally, it is a self-proclaimed leader of the Global South. This has enhanced its appeal for Japan, which has been a robust strategic partner with shared interests and values.

With the two states leading global forums G20 (India) and G7 (Japan) in the coming year, the momentum for effecting positive global governance resides in the leadership intent.

Thus, Japan-India relations are a priority for Kishida and a core component in the pursuit of his realist diplomacy approach. In recent years, both Japan and India have been growing closer over their shared vision and interests in the Indo-Pacific. And they are natural partners in countering China.

In particular, the close personal relations between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can be largely attributed for their high level of engagement since 2014. Adding to that is Japan’s foreign policy culture to embrace India more seriously.

It was Abe after all who drew India closer into the regional architecture and Asian geopolitics. He did this through pushing the “broader Asia” and FOIP concepts. As such, India has been described as a “fulcrum” of Japan’s FOIP strategy, given its salience within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

Continuing Abe’s Vision with India

Kishida is determined to continue Abe’s vision for the region. This involves advancing the role of the Quad in regional affairs as a clear priority. Tokyo is therefore expected to continue heavily factoring India into its strategy.

Under their “Special Strategic and Global Partnership,” India is viewed by Japan as both a bilateral economic, security partner and an Indo-Pacific partner. In March 2022 – the year that also marked 70 years of India-Japan diplomatic ties – Kishida and Modi reaffirmed the importance of their Strategic Partnership.

Recently, Japan has announced new plans of investing ¥5 trillion JPY (about 42 billion USD) in India during 2022-2027. This is despite the continuing lag in bilateral trade. In 2020, India was the 18th largest trading partner for Japan, and Japan India’s 12th largest trading partner.

India has chosen to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP; Japan is a member). However, both sides are members of the US-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). This should create other cooperation opportunities, including resilient supply chains and digital trade aspects.

Furthermore, in 2015, Tokyo and New Delhi introduced a “Special Partnership for the Era of the Indo-Pacific.” Kishida, who was foreign minister at the time, firmly articulated the intent to let the India-Japan ties “drive the advent of the new era … when the Indo-Pacific region becomes the epicenter of global prosperity.”

Indo-Pacific Roots of Bilateral Cooperation

Hence, India and Japan’s cooperation bilaterally and multilaterally is rooted in the Indo-Pacific, which today has attained unrivaled geopolitical significance.

Thus, their alignment is strongly reflected in the national security domain. The impact of the Ukraine war and the double threat from China and North Korea in Japan’s backyard have propelled Japan to step up its defense ties with India.

Amidst a host of bilateral, regional, and global concerns, the two countries are engaged in a number of initiatives. One is the 2+2 Defense and Foreign Ministerial Dialogue – which highlights “concrete cooperation” between FOIP, India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, and the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Another is the 2020 reciprocal defense support pact (inked in 2020).

In view of the destabilizing global and regional landscape, Japan has emphasized the “increasing need” to step up its concrete security cooperation with India. Included in this are bilateral and multinational joint exercises, combined development of defense equipment such as unmanned vehicles, and technology collaboration.

Jointly Leading a Viable National Security Architecture

During the Ukraine war, Japan and the West have had obvious concerns about India’s tilt to Russia.  India’s long-standing historical ties with Russia largely revolve around defense and energy trade, which continues unabated.

Among concerns by the West, India’s abstentions in the United Nations and unwillingness to support Western sanctions on Russia are prominent. At the same time, Prime Minister Kishida’s India visit in March 2022, and the Quad summit in May highlighted that the differences due to the war in Eastern Europe would not impact the Indo-Pacific concerns. Those are closely shared amid the consensus over the China threat.

In contrast to its seemingly ineffectual stance on Russia, India has taken a different course in its China policy. On Russia in the Western view, India continually stresses dialogue without any strict actions. However, the country’s stern statement post the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit pointed fingers at China. The statement called for “avoidance of unilateral actions to change the status quo.”

This took place amid India’s refusal to reiterate the One China policy, as well as soon after calling out China for the first time on “the militarization of the Taiwan Strait.”

Thus, India and Japan have been poised to continue their enhanced engagement on security affairs due to the consensus on the China factor. India in September itself had supported Japan’s determination to reinforce its defense capabilities, including the so-called “counterstrike” capabilities.

Moreover, the post-September SCO meeting events have brought speculation of dissent between the Quad allies to an end. At the SCO, Modi clearly castigated Russia against continuing the war, saying “today’s era is not an era of war.” That sentiment was embraced by the latest G20 statement as well.

Jointly Working to Counter China

The US-led Western allies and Japan recognize the growing importance of India as a vital counter to Chinese influence. Moreover, India is seen as a potential conduit in the West versus Global South debate. The latter has been reignited by the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the Ukraine war on the developing world.

In particular, Japan as an Asian giant that recognizes the strategic compulsions of states such as India, has continued to showcase pragmatism-based diplomacy. It has eschewed the non-essential differences (vis-à-vis Indo-Pacific) in favor of a long-term constructive outlook for counterbalancing China.

As well, Japan has been pursuing a balanced security architecture to outmaneuver unilateral attempts at changing the Indo-Pacific status quo. The coming years will however test their thus far resilient ties.


This article is part of the [Asia’s Next Page] series on JAPAN Forward. Find other articles in the series by Dr. Jagannath Panda, here.

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