Following World War II (WWII), just as Germany did, Japan disarmed itself. Since then, the country has prioritized economic development over political and military disputes, and it has determined a foreign policy strategy that fosters stability in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond. Supporting the rules-based global order (basic principles, the cornerstone of the international order for maintaining world peace and prosperity), Japan positions itself as a “Proactive Contributor to Peace“.
However, in recent years, Japan, as a democracy in Northeast Asia, has been re-formulating its security strategy, taking into account a variety of threat parameters, ranging from transnational threats based on technological developments against cybersecurity to the military postures of regional actors. More precisely, issues such as North Korea‘s nuclear and ballistic missile development and tests; China‘s foreign policies, particularly vis-à-vis Taiwan; and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine have pushed Japan to follow a more proactive stance. Especially the dramatic change in the status quo by Russia’s aggression has an accelerating impact on Japan for implementing proactive strategies that improve Japan’s position in international politics day by day. This paper aims to illustrate state of the art in Japanese relations with major powers exercising power in the former’s proximity and their impact or repercussions on the future of the country.
Japan-North Korea Relations
In 2022, the Ministry of Defense of Japan described North Korea’s activities as a “grave and imminent threat” in the annual defence report. Despite the bilateral dialogue initiative during Abe’s tenure, Japanese-North Korean relations have been deteriorating for decades due to concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs and abductions of Japanese citizens. Since the first nuclear test in 2006, the UN Security Council has adopted several resolutions against North Korea. While sanctions have rendered North Korea more isolated and weaker, the latter has maintained its strategy. Its ballistic missile capacity has reached the limit where it can launch missiles targeting the entire USA mainland by 2022. In Northeast Asia, Japan acts jointly with the Republic of Korea and the USA to balance North Korea. In the Trilateral Foreign Ministerial Meeting on September 22, the foreign ministers reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen cooperation against DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) destabilizing behaviour and achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, both the sanctions and cooperation promote North Korea to stand closer to Russia and China.
After WWII, Japanese-Chinese relations proceeded in a complex structure. Even though the two nations celebrated the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations on September 22, 2022, historical traumas have kept their distance. Japan and China have been on opposing sides during and after the Cold War, and their regional agendas frequently overlap today. Japan adopts a policy that prioritizes economic growth. Therefore, while being a significant partner of the US in the region, it attaches a high value to economic ties with China. Japan has stayed neutral in the US-China trade war and called sides to drop arms competition in the Taiwan Strait, which is one of the busiest trade routes in the world for ships carrying goods between Japan and the rest of the world.
In recent years, Japan has expressed concern over China’s relations with North Korea and Russia in Northeast Asia. However, the Senkaku Islands issue is at the forefront of disputes. China has rejected Japan’s nationalization of the islands since 2012. Furthermore, in the Indo-Pacific, Japan is anxious about China’s policy towards Taiwan, which may spark a global conflict. In a speech in 2021, Abe, who transformed Japan’s relationship with Taiwan during his tenure as prime minister, stated that the “Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance.” On May 2022, President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida declared a joint leaders’ statement that reiterated “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community.”
Occasionally, Beijing has reflected dissatisfaction with Japan-US cooperation in the region through military reactions. In May 2022, after the US-led Quad grouping in Tokyo, China’s airforce conducted joint flights with Russia near Japan. Besides, in August 2022, just a few days after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, five out of 11 ballistic missiles launched by China during the military exercises fell into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
In Japan’s 2022 annual defence report, China’s activities were referred to as “grave security concerns”. It was further highlighted that China aims to develop a “World-Class Military” by accelerating “Intelligentization” through the Civil-Military Fusion (CMF).
After WWII, Japan and Russia could not finalize a peace treaty, which ended the formal state of war with the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration in 1956, but territorial disputes on Kurils persisted ever since.
Japan aimed to improve its relations with Russia during the Abe period (2012-2020). However, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Japan imposed sanctions on Russia following the US and the EU. In 2016, Prime Minister Abe attempted to re-improve relations with Russia once more. Japan provided some economic incentives such as the Eight Point Cooperation2 Plan that were welcomed by Russia, whose economy was suffering due to the sanctions. In 2018, Japan’s superiority in economic relations began to decline due to the recovery of the Russian economy and the US-China trade war, which allowed Russia to strengthen its ties with China. In 2019, Japan and Russia agreed to apply the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration (sharing the islands equally by relinquishing claims on 2 of the 4) to end the dispute.
Since Russia’s aggression on Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, Japan-Russia relations are at their lowest level. In coordination with the G7 countries, Japan has imposed sanctions on Russia and Belarus, and now it is among the countries that imposed the most sanctions. Additionally, Japan has been providing economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Japan halted existing economic cooperation with Russia, revoked Russia’s “most favoured nation” status in economic ties, and expelled some Russian diplomats. Russia responded to Japan by halting peace treaty talks, ending an agreement on Japanese fishing vessels, banning Japanese visits to the disputed islands, with other counter-sanctions and increasing military presence by constructing new permanent bases in the region. The tension is still high in the region. In September 2022, Russia and China conducted the Vostok 2022 exercise near the Kurils, and Japan responded to the exercise by imposing further sanctions.
Japan is the third largest economy in the world after the United States and China and is regarded as one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world. As in other societies, the use of the Internet of Things (IoT), creates many vulnerabilities, growing increasingly prevalent in Japanese society. The private sector is overdependent on the internet, and large Japanese corporations, that produce and export technology products, have a crucial place in the Japanese economy.
Annually, the cost of cybercrimes to the Japanese private sector is approximately $110 million. In recent years, Japan has struggled with the threats to its national security in cyberspace. Attacks by ATP (Advanced persistent threat) groups, which are cyber arms of states or state-sponsored organizations, are the most prominent. The last successful attack by the ATP group named “Cicada” targeted significant corporations and well-known organizations with ties to Japan or Japanese enterprises in multiple sectors aimed at gathering intelligence, detected in 2020.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense outlined the strategy of strengthening Self-Defence Forces due to the rising cyberattack threats of China, Russia and North Korea. Reportedly, China has cyber warfare personnel of 175,000 people, including 30,000 specializing in cyberattack capacity, while North Korea employs 6,800 people. Japan believes Russia has applied “hybrid warfare” methods on Ukraine, including massive cyberattacks. The Defense Ministry intends to increase its cyber defence staff by up to 5,000 by the end of 2027.
Japan: Proactive in the Light of Current Issues
On December 7th 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the peace is “not there now”, and urged members to continue providing weapons to Kyiv over the winter due to Russia’s preparing a spring offensive. Therefore, in 2023, Russian aggression seems to continue with all unprecedented challenges for the international community, and this contains many uncertainties for the future as well. However, the threat leveraged by Russia against the global world order might lead to new ones in the future. At least, it has raised the concern of “will Taiwan be the new Ukraine?”.
In his statement on February 26th 2022, Japan PM Kishida said:
“The attack is totally unacceptable from the standpoint of our national security,”. In his speech on May 2022, he announced that “The invasion of Ukraine is a challenge that is not confined to Europe – it is a matter for the whole world, including Asia. Japan will work together with other nations and take actions with resolute determination so that we would not be sending out the wrong message to the international community; so that using force to unilaterally change the status quo shall never be repeated.”
He expressed Japan’s approach to the current crisis, reiterating Japan has acted jointly with western allies and taken place among the countries that imposed the most sanctions on Russia since the beginning.
With the damage to the status quo, the security issues in the region, such as China’s military development and the risks of possible aggression to Taiwan, Russia’s rising military existence in the Kurils and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capability, that has reached to hit the US in 2022, even the risks about forming a tripartite alliance may drastically shift the balance of power to the detriment of Japan. This has increased Japan’s concerns. In the annual defence report, Minister of Defense Kishi Nobuo says: “Japan must not delay in bringing together its knowledge and technology and putting all its collective efforts into strengthening its national defence capabilities.” Against this backdrop, Japan’s defence budget was announced to have doubled from 1% of GDP (the ninth largest globally) to 2% in the Basic Policy 2022. The 2% brings Japan to the same level as NATO Allies.
In the annual defence report, Minister of Defense Kishi Nobuo further declares:
“Japan has embraced a security strategy of boosting cooperation through strengthening bilateral and multilateral ties instantly. In this context, “In the face of unprecedented challenges, the ties between the partners are further strengthened. Among these, the bond of Japan–US Alliance remains unshakeable, and trilateral cooperation among Japan, the US, and Australia, and quadrilateral cooperation among Japan, the US, Australia, and India, are further deepening. Also, as symbolised by vessels making port calls to Japan one after another last year, Japan continues to work together with European nations to ensure that the region is free and open”.
Japan, alongside Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, joined for the first time the NATO Madrid summit at the end of June 2022. Japan is one of the nine NATO partners beyond the Euro-Atlantic region–referred to as “partners across the globe”. While Russia’s aggression to Ukraine has an accelerating impact on adopting more proactive strategies for Japan, it also improved its position in international politics. PM Kishida’s attendance at the emergency meeting conducted by the leaders of NATO member countries, due to the missile crash in Poland, during the G20 summit on 15 November is evaluated as a sign of Japan taking a more active role in international politics.
In 2023, Japan seems to increase its visibility in the UN and G7. On January 1, 2023, a two-year mandate of a non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council returned to Japan, which means its increasing prominence in World politics in this duration. In addition, with the end of Germany’s G7 Presidency, the baton was passed to Japan. In his video message for the next G7 Summit, which will be held in Hiroshima in May, Prime Minister Kishida said:
“The G7 firmly rejects any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force or the threat or use of nuclear weapons and upholds the international order based on the rule of law. I will lead the discussion as Chair and demonstrate the G7’s strong determination to the world with historical significance.”
Japan positions itself as a “Proactive Contributor to Peace”. Yet, the country is in a renewed search for the formulation of its security strategy, facing a variety of threats, ranging from transnational cybersecurity challenges to the threat postures of regional actors such as North Korea, China, and Russia.
Japan describes North Korea as a “grave and imminent threat”. It has imposed sanctions against North Korea in line with the UN Security Council Resolutions to curb the latter’s nuclear and ballistic missile development efforts. Against the current dangers in Korean Peninsula, Japan has strengthened cooperation in stabilizing the region and denuclearization with the Republic of Korea and the USA. However, both the sanctions and cooperation push North Korea closer to Russia and China. In Japan’s annual defence report, China’s activities were classified as “grave security concerns”. It was further highlighted that China aims to develop a “World-Class Military” by accelerating “Intelligentization” through the Civil-Military Fusion (CMF). Besides the territorial dispute on the Senkaku islands, Japan is anxious about China’s Taiwan policy, which may spark a global conflict. In a speech in 2021, former Prime Minister Shizo Abe stated that the “Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance.” While Japan attached high priority to improving its relationship with Russia, it opposed Russia’s aggression, risking the deterioration of ties. February 26th 2022, Japanese PM Kishida said “The attack is totally unacceptable from the standpoint of our national security.” Japan has concerns that irreparable damage to the global status quo could encourage China to pursue more aggressive policies against Taiwan.
The array of challenges described above, on top of the current war in Ukraine, has had an accelerating impact on Japan’s search for implementing more proactive policies. Japan has acted jointly with western allies and taken place among the countries that imposed the most sanctions on Russia since the beginning. It outlined the strategy of strengthening Self-Defense Forces, It doubled the defence budget from 1% of GDP (the ninth largest globally) to 2%, the same level of contribution as the NATO Allies, and decided to strengthen cybersecurity capacity due to the threats emanating from China, Russia and North Korea. In June 2022, Japan, for the first time, joined a NATO Summit as being a NATO partner, one of NATO’s nine “partners across the globe”. PM Kishida’s attendance at the emergency meeting conducted by the leaders of NATO member countries, due to the missile crash in Poland, during the G20 summit on 15 November is evaluated as a harbinger of a more active Japan that gradually projects more power, enhancing its position in defining international politics. With the beginning of 2023, the G7 presidency and the two-year mandate of a non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council returned to Japan, which means its prominence and visibility in World politics will increase in this during this period.
 Fatih Civrillioglu is a Research Assistant Intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.
 The Kurils consist of 56 islands that cover 6,000 square miles (15,600 square km). The islands are under the control of Russia while Japan claims historical rights on the four southernmost islands the Japanese population has lived. These are Etorofu, Habomai, Kunashiri and Shikotan. In Marc 2022, negotiations on the dispute were suspended by Russia after Japan imposed sanctions.
 Eight Point Cooperation Plan: (1) Extending healthy life expectancies, (2) developing comfortable and clean cities easy to reside and live in, (3) fundamentally expanding medium-sized and small companies exchange and cooperation, (4) energy, (5) promoting industrial diversification and enhancing productivity in Russia, (6) developing industries and export bases in the Far East, (7) cooperation on cutting-edge technologies, and (8) fundamentally expansion of people-to-people interaction.