A New Phase of Defense Diplomacy and Defense Production and Technology Base Essential to Japan's National Strategy

Ippeita Nishida
Tsuneo Watanabe


Defense diplomacy, or activities that affect relations with other countries or with their defense authorities through using defense capabilities, has become an international trend. This is because hard-power cooperation strengthens relations with foreign countries, and the activities conducted through such cooperation influence the formation of regional order. In the United Kingdom and Australia, "international defense engagement" is recognized as a normalized mission of the military. In China, "national defense diplomacy" is strategically implemented under the leadership of Xi Jinping. South Korea, which will be discussed in the second part of this article, is advocating "national defense diplomacy" and implementing equipment transfer. The militaries of many countries are also conducting activities similar to defense diplomacy, although they fail to define their policy concept as clearly as the above countries. For instance, the United States is developing defense and security cooperation worldwide, while France focuses its security cooperation on crisis management. 1

Japan is no exception. The SDF's interaction with foreign militaries other than the US military and involvement in international security, which began on a small scale after the Cold War, now constitute an integral part of the Japanese government's foreign and security policy. The SDF's overseas dispatch has also allowed the international community to reevaluate the SDF's skills; in 2012, the Japan Ministry of Defense began a capacity-building support program for other foreign militaries. In 2014, the three principles of defense equipment transfer came into being, enabling the SDF to reach out to other countries through equipment cooperation. Political expectations are high for such a role of military power. 2 In the current National Defense Program Guidelines, security cooperation is defined as one of the "roles" of defense power. 3

The authors of this paper believe that there is room for improvement in current defense diplomacy efforts. This paper discusses future challenges for Japan's defense diplomacy. It comprises two parts. In Part I, "A New Phase of Defense Diplomacy," Nishida argues that defense diplomacy should be conducted with contingencies in mind, learning from the Ukraine crisis. In Part II, "Defense Production and Technology Base Essential to Japan's National Strategy," Watanabe argues that defense equipment exports should be strategically implemented to benefit Japan's economic growth, referring to the case of South Korea. Recent defense policy debates have focused on improving defense capabilities by acquiring new mainstay equipment. However, this paper seeks to draw attention to the importance of the creative use of existing assets.

I. A New Phase of Defense Diplomacy

1. "Defense Diplomacy" Described Thus Far

Defense authorities in various countries are actively pursuing their defense diplomacy. The scopes they set often differ from country to country or from expert to expert. Therefore, there is no unified definition of defense diplomacy. Nonetheless, looking at recent trends in defense diplomacy, it can be defined as "primarily peacetime efforts to use assets owned by the defense authority and the military for cooperation with other countries to achieve one's diplomatic and security objectives, thereby exerting effects favorable to oneself." 4 The scope of such efforts is wide-ranging. The list of supposed cooperation includes the activities of military officers stationed abroad and arms control delegations, exchanges and policy discussions among defense authorities at all levels, port and airport calls by vessels and aircraft and goodwill exchanges, unit exchanges and joint training, arms transfers, and capacity-building support. Also included are military operations (actual missions) short of combat action, such as participation in UN peacekeeping operations and stabilization operations by multinational forces. More emphasis is placed than ever on securing external influence through hard-power operations, such as improving coordination and interoperability with foreign militaries, securing local access, and projecting the image of one's country abroad. This is an approach for improving external influence—different from the exercise of hard power or actions predicated on hard power, which had been primarily carried out by the military in threats, coercion, intervention, war, alliances, and military assistance. 5

The following are three representative roles of defense diplomacy. 6

(i) Security sector reforms for developing or fragile states, beginning with assistance to the former Eastern Bloc countries in Eastern Europe (civil war response for crisis management, state reconstruction including security authorities to prevent recurrence of conflict, suppression of the military insurgency, elimination of repression against citizens, support for fair social construction and democratization, and stabilization assistance)

(ii) Strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations between defense authorities (building relationships in the post-Cold War international community, promotion of contact and mutual understanding between militaries of different countries through responses to regional conflicts, building relations with host and neighboring countries and intelligence gathering)

(iii) Strengthening strategic defense engagement and cooperation (embodying the will and capability, countering unilateral attempts by Russia and China to change the status quo and their expansionist actions, advancing defense cooperation by countries sharing common values and interests, and deterrence and reassurance through bilateral and minilateral activities)

Of these roles, strategic ones like deterrence against an adversary and reassurance to neighboring countries have become prominent in recent years. In carrying out these activities, the prerequisite is "strategic communication" or the utilization of a means of persuasion to encourage the adversary to change its perceptions and behavior through the effective delivery of a coherent message with enhanced credibility, so structured as to synchronize with the actions of the military as a visible power. Strategic communication is a policy concept adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and NATO; it also appears in the current National Defense Program Guidelines. A country begins strategic communication by structuring a message by combining words, actions, images, and symbols and then sending it to government officials and citizens of an adversary country or countries concerned. Thus, the country in question attempts to make those people understand its policy intentions and to lead them to actions it wants them to take. 7

2. The Ukraine Crisis and the New Dimension of "Defense Diplomacy"

According to the above definition, defense diplomacy is conducted "primarily in peacetime." This is due to the fact that multilateral military relations in peacetime are, in reality, cooperative and to the growing need for cooperation, with contingencies in mind. In contingencies, a country will supposedly make full use of existing defense channels to have its position understood by the international community and to seek support from other countries. Naturally, however, any country other than those involved in contingencies will first consider their possible impact on its security and will generally hesitate to provide military assistance that may entail commensurate burden and risks—unless those countries involved are its military allies, or unless, for example, a military conflict is feared to directly affect its security and strategy. In the event of a proxy war between superpowers or a similar conflict, as is the case with the Cold War conflicts and the Ukraine crisis, military assistance like the provision of arms, ammunition, and training might be provided; but in most cases, assistance from the third-party countries is limited to political or humanitarian aid.

Consequently, amid growing concerns about a Taiwan contingency, it is generally correct that Japanese policymakers do not expect much military assistance from countries other than the United States, with which Japan has an alliance. Emphatic mention in the recent versions of the Japanese defense white paper of the creation of a desirable security environment should be accounted for by the expectation on the Japanese side that the reinforcement of security architecture and advanced multilateral military cooperation would serve as a check on military adventurism by China and North Korea. Japan has emphasized security cooperation from the perspective of deterrence, not with a contingency response in mind.

On the other hand, Russia's invasion of Ukraine reconfirmed that deterrence will fail if an adversary has the will and capability to break it. The West clearly announced its support for Ukraine; in addition to assistance from other countries, they are providing Ukraine with massive financial support through the EU and Ukraine's neighboring countries with humanitarian aid. While the US outperforms in terms of military support, more than 20 European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, are providing equipment and training to a non-NATO Ukraine. 8 Motivation for their support for Ukraine includes resentment over a UN Security Council permanent member's violation of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law—a brazen breach of international norms—, growing sympathy for European compatriots in Ukraine, and heightened humanitarian awareness, as well as a direct threat perception about the security of contiguous Europe. In the Soviet Union era, Central Europe and the Baltic Sea states were under the sway of the Soviet Union; Ukraine shares historical memories of Russian rule with those countries. 9 Germany, heavily dependent on Russian gas imports and worrying about economic implications, was slow in response. President Macron of France—the only nuclear power in the EU today—has enunciated that France will not use its nuclear weapons in response to Russia's limited use of nukes. It is important to note that even within Europe, there are differences in responses to the Ukraine crisis. In other words, even if they share direct interests, the calculations of individual countries differ in terms of what support they give and how far.

Turning to an imminent Taiwan contingency, what kind of support could Japan, the United States, and Taiwan obtain from the rest of the world? The United States is obligated to defend Japan under the Japan-US Alliance, whereas the US defense of Taiwan may depend on the level of political commitment of the US administration. Conceivable crisis scenarios are as follows: (1) military operations by Chinese forces in the sea and airspace surrounding Taiwan, (2) blockade and control by Chinese forces of remote Taiwanese islands (Matsu Islands, Kinmen Islands), (3) blockade by Chinese forces of the main island of Taiwan, (4) an invasion by Chinese forces of the main island of Taiwan, (5) concurrence of a Taiwan and a Korean Peninsula contingency, etc. To address these crises, the efforts of Japan and the United States will not suffice; broader political sympathy must be obtained from the international community to promptly secure economic and military support.

3. Who and What to Expect in Defense Diplomacy

In such a situation, countries to rely on are primarily US allies like the United Kingdom and Australia, with whom Japan has promoted defense cooperation. If the United States were to engage in a full-scale war with China, Australia and the United Kingdom would likely join the war, while the JSDF would also be required to make high-level cooperation with them. In this sense, it is of vital importance that bilateral defense cooperation has advanced between Japan and the United Kingdom or Australia. It is likewise significant to further improve interoperability with them through joint training and to establish and maintain the support basis for their deployments through a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). Next come advanced countries with sophisticated military capabilities—European countries, Canada, and the countries that occupy crucial locations, such as India, Indonesia, and Singapore. These countries may not engage in direct combat in the Far East. Yet, they could exert political and military pressure on China in cooperation with the United Kingdom and Australia, condemning the country for threatening international peace and stability. Some countries may step up military and diplomatic support for Taiwan and join the United States in imposing economic sanctions against China. Under deteriorated situations, Japan may need the cooperation of those countries to evacuate Japanese nationals; in the event of a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, those countries could provide indirect support in breaking it and humanitarian assistance. 10 Outside of the region, the militaries of those supportive countries could offer aid in the form of international monitoring of Chinese forces deployed overseas, checks on their activities, intelligence gathering and sharing, and the provision of supplies. It may be theoretically possible to influence the Far Eastern situation by imposing sanctions by impeding China's economic activities through, for example, seizing Chinese merchant ships navigating the sea lanes from East Asia to the Middle East.

On the other hand, although those supportive countries may demonstrate political solidarity and criticize China, they may not necessarily provide military support for Japan. Geographically and historically, China is not a direct threat to many of them. They are more concerned about the economic impact of a crisis. Therefore, it is necessary to encourage those countries to provide more active and direct support. The principle of defense diplomacy is reciprocity. If Japan wants to receive substantial support from foreign countries in a contingency, it must be committed to the security issues those countries are facing—on top of its efforts such as governmental policy consultations and the sharing of awareness, the formation of defense cooperation frameworks, and the improvement of interoperability through joint training and drills. These will constitute the overriding challenge for Japan's future defense diplomacy.

4. Immediate Challenges

Given the above, Japan's defense diplomacy must consider how to build relationships with other countries on which it can rely to secure international support in a situation where "deterrence has failed." In addition to its traditional policy of "creating a desirable security environment," Japan should underscore "efforts to secure cooperation and support from the international community in the event of a contingency" as an objective of its security cooperation. Japan also must make other countries want to support Japan. Defense diplomacy has a reciprocal aspect; for this reason, it is a prerequisite for Japan to work proactively on international security issues from peacetime. This is more so the case when demanding economic burden and risks on other countries. Such rhetoric as "countries that share fundamental values" does not work. Only when Japan works together on their security issues and shares the reality of those issues, will those countries decide to support Japan. Japan received supplies and donations from 126 countries, regions, and international organizations in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. 11 The developing countries also provided much assistance, which they acknowledged as a return for Japan's development cooperation for many years. 12 At this moment, Japan should first of all consider providing more substantial military aid to Ukraine and support to neighboring countries. It should also take the lead in helping reconstruction in Ukraine after the conflict ends and contribute more to peace and stability in Europe. Instead of participating in UN-supervised or non-UN peace operations, for which Japan has ceased to dispatch SDF units, it may be a promising alternative for Japan to consider contributing to stabilization missions in Africa under the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Japan's contribution to those missions may be also vital as Japan-US cooperation; the international community will appreciate it. At the same time, in deepening cooperation with defense authorities of other countries, Japan should create cooperation frameworks to, among other things, protect overseas Japanese nationals; conduct joint training; and establish preparedness for immediate response in the event of a Far East contingency. In particular, cooperation for protecting Japanese nationals abroad is an urgent issue. First, Japan should share recognition of the current situation with other countries in preparation for a contingency in Taiwan or one on the Korean Peninsula and establish a basis for cooperation by sharing procedures for protecting Japanese residents. Currently, there are approximately 41,000 Japanese residents in South Korea and 25,000 in Taiwan. Even if most of those Japanese may evacuate in advance, still thousands of Japanese will be forced to leave those countries after a contingency has occurred. Then, in addition to the use of civilian aircraft and cooperation of the US military to transport those Japanese, cooperation with other countries will also be necessary to survive the disturbances. South Korea is unlikely to permit the use of SDF aircraft, and China may strongly oppose the dispatch of SDF aircraft to Taiwan. Regarding the protection of overseas Japanese nationals, the Japanese government tends to pay excessive respect to the sovereignty of other countries; meanwhile, Western countries unreservedly prioritize the protection of their own citizens in times of crisis. For Japan, cooperation with countries that can deal with crises is indispensable. 13

II. Defense Production and Technology Base Essential to Japan's National Strategy

1. What are the Constraints of Resources for Achieving Strategy?

The National Security Strategy (NSS) released by the Biden administration in October 2022 indicates that the United States, in tandem with its allies and partners, will, over a long time, confront China and Russia, revisionist countries challenging the existing international order. The NSS regards Russia and China as posing different challenges: "Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown" while "[t]he PRC, by contrast, is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective." The document defines China as a more imminent threat than Russia, for "the PRC presents America's most consequential geopolitical challenge."

The United States considers it important to align its efforts with its network of allies and partners, acting with common purpose and in common cause." The NSS states that the United States has "an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which is critical to regional and global security and prosperity," and that it opposes "any unilateral changes to the status quo from" either China or Taiwan and does not "support Taiwan independence." The document considers the development of military capabilities of the United States and its allies as an urgent task to prevent China's use of military force over the Taiwan Strait issue. 14

At the Japan-US Summit Meeting in May 2022, "Prime Minister Kishida stated his determination to fundamentally reinforce Japan's defense capabilities and secure a substantial increase of its defense budget needed to effect it, which received strong support from President Biden. The two leaders agreed to expand and deepen security and defense cooperation between Japan and the U.S., including in the space and cyber domains as well as in the field of emerging technologies, to maximize the synergy of the capabilities of the two countries and to ensure the Japan-U.S. Alliance maintains its competitive edge into the future." 15

In order for the United States and Japan to maintain a certain level of military balance against China engaging in dramatic military expansion, the allies must undertake a considerable military buildup. Yet, Japan's economy is stagnant with little prospect for future high growth. The Japanese government's outstanding debt exceeding twice the GDP is the highest among major developed countries, 16 standing in the way of Japan's sustainable military buildup. This is the problem.

In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Scholz has pledged 2% of GDP for defense spending for 2023. In Japan, too, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed achieving defense spending worth 2% of GDP within five years from FY2023. 17 Two percent of Germany's GDP is estimated to be in the order of $110 billion. Japan's GDP for 2021 was $4.9374 trillion, while Germany's for the same year was $4.2259 trillion; Japan's defense spending worth 2% of GDP would be on the order of $120 billion. Given that the US defense budget for 2022 is $753 billion (GDP: $22.9975 trillion) and China's defense budget for 2022 is $230.16 billion (GDP: $17.458 trillion), a Japan-Germany combined defense expenditure worth $230 billion will help increase the sustainability of US commitment to the international order and will reassure American citizens, US allies, and partners in Asia and Europe that the existing US-supported international order can be maintained.

Japan and Germany have restrained defense capabilities since the end of World War II and boast superior industrial and technological infrastructures. There is much room for them to develop military capabilities depending on future policy changes. However, a major challenge for the Japanese government is to secure sufficient defense spending in the order of 2% of GDP, given Japan's debt-to-GDP ratio at 256.9% (cf. the United States: 133.3%, Germany: 72.5%, both for 2021).

Meanwhile, at the National People's Congress in March 2022, China's defense budget for FY2022 was set at 1.45045 trillion yuan (about 26.3 trillion yen), up 7.1% from the previous year. President Xi Jinping, also serving as chairman of the Central Military Commission, has been promoting a "Strong Nation Strong Military" policy with a long-term plan. 18

Japan should strategically consider its future defense spending not as a "non-refundable insurance" but as a "profitable investment" that will yield returns in the future and should be used as a seed for its economic growth and as a contribution to the stability of the Indo-Pacific region. To achieve a sustainable increase in defense spending, a short-term increase in the defense budget is not merely insufficient but is incapable of sustaining the competition for military balance with China—competition which will likely become a long-term one. The Japanese government is now facing a demanding political judgment on measures to secure financial sources for increasing defense spending—whether or not to rely on debt, curtail other spending such as social welfare, or raise taxes. Whatever short-term political solution the Japanese government may choose, in the long run, it needs to increase investments in defense production and technology base and to formulate a strategy to ensure that such investments may lead to future economic growth.

2. The Importance of Defense Diplomacy

The idea of "defense diplomacy," or the strategic use of defense assets, is important to link Japan's defense production and relevant technologies to future economic growth. Simply put, this means positioning Japanese defense equipment as an important "export item" instrumental to Japan's economic growth and as diplomatic capital in a way that should not undermine regional peace but rather contribute to stability, thereby overcoming the allergy to an "arms-selling country" cultivated by the "three principles on arms exports." In that case, in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Pacific island countries, Japan could use its military assets for cooperative activities, following its "economic strategy" and through its "defense diplomacy," to promote regional peace and stability and Japan's diplomatic and economic interests.

Japan has been expanding similar activities as "security cooperation" and "defense exchange and defense cooperation." In particular, since the 1990s, in addition to deepening cooperation with the United States, Japan has normalized exchanges and cooperation with the United Kingdom, France, Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries, at all levels, from the head-of-state or ministerial levels to the unit level.

In 2016, Japan proposed the Vientiane Vision, an initiative of engagement in the Southeast Asian region. Japan's proposal of ASEAN-Japan defense cooperation to ensure regional peace, security, and prosperity included (1) support for the promotion of shared recognition of international law in the maritime and aviation fields; (2) support for capacity building in maritime and airborne intelligence gathering, vigilance and surveillance activities, and search and rescue; (3) support for ASEAN capacity building programs in multiple fields.

Related specific programs include (1) promotion of shared recognition of international laws, including international aviation and maritime laws; (2) humanitarian assistance; (3) defense equipment and technology transfer and cooperation in related human resource development; (4) multilateral joint training and exercises and invitation of ASEAN observers to SDF training; and (5) human resource development and academic exchange through the invitation of ASEAN opinion leaders. 19

3. How to Position Defense Equipment Export in Defense Diplomacy

When considering the export of defense equipment as part of Japan's defense diplomacy, the ROK's equipment export system is worth consideration. Its proactive policy of exporting weapons overseas has been a driving force in increasing the breadth and volume of its activities in defense and diplomacy. The ROK's arms exports, which were in the $200 million range in 2006, reached a record high of about $3.6 billion in 2014 during the Park Geun-hye administration and reached the $3 billion level for three consecutive years from 2013 to 2015, increasing some 14 times in less than a decade. Quoting these figures, Kohtaro Ito, Senior Research Fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, discusses how effectively the ROK has positioned arms export in its defense diplomacy in a book "What is Defense Diplomacy," which he co-authored with the writers of this essay. 20

What Japan should learn from the above is that the ROK government has established a government-private-military support system, including the use of diplomatic missions and military attaches stationed abroad and aligned with the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA, the Korean equivalent of JETRO). The political leadership of a former president and business tycoon Lee Myung-bak played a cardinal role in these efforts. As South Korea grew militarily and economically strong, it began to actively build relationships of trust with other countries through its unique defense diplomacy.

Interestingly, Itoh's analysis points out that the ROK's defense equipment export policy and defense diplomacy, which promotes the former, are not based on a broad strategic perspective to deter China and Russia through its alliance with the United States. In contrast to Japan's capacity-building aid to Southeast Asian countries as part of deterrence of China, the ROK, says Itoh, has no strategic thinking of that kind. According to a former South Korean general whom Itoh interviewed, South Korea's arms export policy "thinks of only selling equipment, thinking nothing of a strategy (for deterrence against China). 21

Japan must admit, however, that that policy has ultimately increased the ROK's influence in Southeast Asia and contributed to its defense diplomacy. Being bound by the three principles on arms exports, a former political manifesto, and failing to create an effective equipment export system, Japan has missed the chance to build crucial assets for defense diplomacy and has lost strategic opportunities.

4. Challenges for Japan

Looking squarely at the geopolitical environment in which Japan finds itself and its declining industrial competitiveness, the reinforcement of the defense production base—"no other than defense capabilities," according to the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency—is the most significant challenge as a comprehensive strategy for Japan's defense, diplomacy, and economic development. Specifically, a holistic defense diplomacy strategy is needed. The following recommendations 22 proposed by Itoh, along with the authors of this essay, elaborate on Japan's most urgent strategic challenges.

In Japan, the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology was introduced in 2014, and an era of full-fledged equipment exports was expected to come. Yet, Japan's only finished product export to date is an air defense radar contracted with the Philippines in August 2020. Now is the time that we should have a diplomatic defense strategy to ensure that the defense products of Japan's defense industry have sufficient international competitiveness in the global market.

The first step should be to create an intellectual infrastructure for understanding global defense technology and defense industry market trends. On April 27, 2021, the "Council for Integrated Innovation Strategy" decided to establish a new think tank organization to conduct research and analysis to prevent the outflow of proprietary technology in the light of economic security. In making such an organization work, it will be important not only to concentrate on protecting Japan's proprietary technologies but to be active in exporting defense equipment incorporating a highly sensitive technology—subject to creating in advance a technology protection mechanism with reliable partner countries.

Unquestionably, maintaining and improving Japan's defense production base will directly contribute to reinforcing Japan's defense capabilities. In addition, defense equipment exports are not only a vital means of Japan's defense diplomacy but also a crucial means for Japan to sustain investments in its defense capabilities under the difficult financial situation.


From the viewpoint of defense diplomacy, we have noted things to discuss in terms of contingency preparedness and equipment transfer. These two have common points. One of them is that these activities necessitate the utilization of existing assets and do not claim large additional budgets. They are cost-effective in a sense, but it is a prerequisite to strengthen the system and operations to make them truly cost-effective. The second is the need for a clear policy. At times, defense diplomacy activities take the form of provisional "responses" to requests from various quarters; unless there is a clear shared organizational policy, it may be difficult to gain any practical benefit from such activities. Organizational efforts are needed to achieve more than just doing work. Due to the use of existing assets, instead of procuring new equipment, these activities are easier to do. But it is necessary to continually evaluate, from both policy and operational perspectives, how resources should be combined for an optimum approach in light of policy goals.

(Senior Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

(Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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