Japan has unveiled a new space policy with a big focus on security and commerce. This marks a major departure for Japan. The new focus on security is a shift from its earlier policy that emphasized the peaceful use of outer space, borne out of a resolution passed in Diet in 1969. Despite the reversal of this policy in 2008, Japan had continued its emphasis on peaceful uses of its space assets. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed the new policy orientation, which is also in line with some of the critical changes taking place in Japan’s broader security policies. Changes in its arms export policy are a case in point.

It is reported that the new space orientation is in recognition of the changing nature of security threats and challenges, including growing Chinese space capabilities. Reflecting this, the new policy is unambiguous in laying out the security emphasis, saying: “We will engage in space development to directly utilize it for our nation’s diplomatic and security policies, as well as for the Self-Defense Forces.” Also of interest is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency-Ministry of Defence cooperation that is outlined in the plan.

Revealing the new 10-year Basic Plan on Space Policy in early January, Abe explained, “We’ve managed to compile a long-term and specific plan that fully takes into account our new security policy. As the key principle of our space policy, this is something that marks a historic turning point.”

Outlining the challenges from China, the document states: “The security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher, and the importance of space is getting bigger for safeguarding our security. China is rapidly strengthening its space capabilities and developing anti-satellite weapons. It is said to be developing devices that obstruct satellites’ functions with laser beams.”

Given the growing destabilizing capabilities in the neighborhood, the focus is on Information Gathering Satellites in order to strengthen Japan’s own competence in the surveillance and reconnaissance areas. In the face of such direct threats and also the changing regional military equations, the new policy also puts an emphasis on strengthening cooperation with the United States while improving the value and competence of its space industry to 5 trillion yen ($42 billion) over the next 10 years.

The recent budget allocation for space is also a reflection of the new thinking.

In its latest allocation, 324.5 billion yen has been earmarked for a combined space budget, which is an increase of 18.5 percent over the current fiscal year. In September 2014, Japan’s Cabinet had sought around a 19 percent increase, bringing the space budget to 327 billion yen. The hike, according to a recent analysis by Paul Kallender-Umezu, was also meant for a laser-optical data-relay satellite and an Earth observation satellite with a missile warning sensor as a hosted payload, emphasizing the surveillance and reconnaissance focus of the Japanese space program.
The new plan also prioritizes the Quasi-Zenith satellites, Japan’s version of the U.S. GPS navigation satellites, which will increase to seven. The September plan also earmarked 13.7 billion yen for the navigation system.

A Japanese H-2A rocket carrying the NASA-JAXA, Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory at the Tanegashima Space Center, Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

JAXA’s plans to replace the old H-2A rocket by the early 2020s appear to getting attention. Thirteen billion yen has been earmarked for the new H-3 launcher. For JAXA, this is important, for it strengthens Japan’s stated goal of “autonomous launch capability of satellites and other payloads while acquiring international competitiveness in the space transportation field and maintaining and developing technical and industrial bases.”

One of the important triggers for the change in Japan’s security orientation is the growing Chinese military capabilities and the manner in which Beijing has been threatening and using force in order to settle border and territorial issues. Growing Chinese military might, particularly its capabilities in the outer space domain, are worrying for Japan. Even as China continues with its rhetoric of peaceful uses of outer space in some of the multilateral forums, the reality has been that there is a flourishing military space program under the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army. Japan under Abe can be expected to take responsive measures to strengthen its deterrent capabilities against some of the destabilizing capabilities of China.

Also, the relative decline of the United States and the perceived weakening of deterrence measures in Asia are compelling Japan to shoulder more of the security burden on its own. Japan will also likely proactively engage in the global rule-making exercise that could compel China to follow certain norms that might have a restraining effect on Beijing.

Meanwhile, Japan is also nurturing certain partnerships as a means of stepping up pressure on China to mend its approach. Japan’s growing friendship with Vietnam is a case in point. A recent Japanese initiative to provide Vietnam with $1 billion worth of space development assistance is noteworthy. James Clay Moltz of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, detailing the initiative, said Japan’s assistance would go toward establishing a Vietnamese national space center and operating two radar imaging satellites. He added that data from the Vietnamese spacecraft, which will fly over China, might be shared with Japan.

All of this suggests that Chinese military power, particularly its growing space arsenal and the changing military balance in the region, is pushing Japan to adopt a more security-oriented approach to its space programs and policies. Space policies are increasingly being fashioned based on both commercial and national security considerations.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. She served at the Indian government’s National Security Council Secretariat from 2003 to 2007.