ASIAN SECURITYNo, Japan Is Not Ready for AUKUS

By Ryosuke Hanada

Published 12 December 2023

It is a natural strategic choice for Japan to join in advanced military technology cooperation under the trilateral Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) agreement – turning the alliance into “JAUKUS” – but there is a fundamental stumbling block: Japan’s lack of effective counter-espionage laws.

On 14 November, Aso Taro, the vice president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called for Japan to be included in the AUKUS trilateral security partnership with Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This ‘JAUKUS’ proposal is nothing new. Since the inception of AUKUS in September 2021, Japan has been viewed as the leading candidate for additional membership due to its solid alliance with the US and membership of other security partnerships, including the Quad. In August, the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recommended the inclusion of Japan and South Korea into Pillar 2 of the agreement.

While it’s a natural strategic choice for Japan to join in advanced military technology cooperation under AUKUS Pillar 2, a fundamental stumbling block is Japan’s lack of effective counter-espionage laws.

Japan currently has some laws dedicated to preventing espionage. One is the Unfair Competition Prevention Act (UCPA) which sets the maximum criminal punishment as imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than 20 million yen for the illicit transfer or disclosure of trade  secrets. The Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (PSDS) that was passed by the Abe administration in 2014 allows the government to designate certain information related to national security and diplomacy as special secrets and sets the maximum punishment at imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than 10 million yen for leaking such secrets.

There are three deficiencies there. One is Japan’s weak punishment for espionage compared to other AUKUS members. The US has the Espionage Act 1917 with the maximum punishment of death or imprisonment for any number of years. With the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2018, Australia punishes espionage, defined as ‘dealing with security classified or national security information to be communicated to a foreign principal’ with at least 10 years imprisonment, up to imprisonment for life. Its 27 newly introduced offences cover a preparatory offence punished by imprisonment for 15 years and interference, as separated from espionage, for up to 20 years. Despite significant domestic opposition since 2015, the UK parliament finally updated its counter-espionage law in July 2023, following Australia’s path.