A New Military Strategy for Japan

Active Denial Will Increase Security in Northeast Asia

A Japanese destroyer at Sagami Bay, Japan, October 2015. Toru Hanai/Reuters

Japan confronts an increasingly difficult security environment. Despite the current media attention on North Korea, a very real but largely one-dimensional nuclear threat, Japanese strategists are concerned primarily with the broader and more multidimensional challenge posed by the rise of China and its territorial ambitions in the East China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been more forward-looking regarding security affairs than his predecessors. He has moved to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities, reorganize its security policymaking institutions, and increase its military budget after a long period of decline, while loosening some restrictions on its military forces and enhancing Japan’s intelligence capacity. These measures, however, can only marginally slow a shifting balance of power. A rethink of military strategy, one that looks to buttress deterrence even in the absence of military dominance, is urgently required. 

Japan’s current approach might be labeled a strategy of “forward defense” and is centered on defeating aggression as quickly as possible at the outer limits of Japanese territory. To execute that strategy, it has built traditional maneuver forces designed to fight decisive battles. Although forward defense was entirely reasonable during the early post–Cold War period, it is a poor fit for an evolving environment in which China would enjoy significant advantages at the outset of a conflict. To mitigate its vulnerability, harness the full potential of its alliance with the United States, and increase its ability to deter China, Japan should shift instead toward a strategy of “active denial”—one focused not on fighting pitched battles at the outset but on maintaining a force that can survive an initial assault and continue to harass and resist enemy forces, thereby denying them quick, decisive victories and driving up the risks and costs of military aggression. 

Evolving Balance of Military Power

Over the past 20 years, China’s military modernization has increased the magnitude and nature of Beijing’s strategic challenge to Tokyo. China’s military budget has grown in step with the country’s economic expansion, increasing by an

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