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NATO-Japan deepening cooperation in cybersecurity and critical technologies

By Piret Pernik
Researcher at NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence
March 24, 2023
Russia’s full-scale armed attack on Ukraine has impacted both the European security architecture and the security of the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan. Japan, technologically advanced and one of the world largest economies, is a very close partner for NATO and the EU in addressing cyber and technology challenges. Indeed, NATO considers Japan as its key global partner, and the two share the same values, interests and security concerns.[1] Their interests converge in many international political and trade matters related to the cyberspace, such as ensuring supply chains of critical technologies, competing with the authoritarian powers like China with an aim to maintain the technology edge of the democratic countries, strong deterrence and defence in cyberspace, and democratic values and individual freedoms. Hence, it is not a surprise that NATO and Japan’s security cooperation has significantly deepened in the recent years.
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To bring some examples of this, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was invited to the NATO Madrid Summit in June 2022, and in January 2023 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tokyo. Stoltenberg said in Tokyo that NATO and Japan ''may be oceans apart, but our security is closely connected'', and he called Japan Alliance’s closest and most capable partner.[2] At this meeting, NATO and Japan agreed to deepen their cooperation in cyber defence, new technologies, countering hybrid threats, and upholding the rules-based international order.[3] In the same month, the United States, NATO’s largest defence spender, and Japan announced new initiatives concerning their long standing defence alliance, embracing cyber defence. Similarly, the QUAD countries (which include in addition to Japan and the United States also Australia and India) recently strengthened cooperation in areas of cybersecurity, technical standards, critical technologies and their supply chains, as well as improved information sharing. Lastly, Japan and the US cooperate with another NATO nation, the Netherlands, in restricting semiconductors export to China; and Japan is a key partner of the EU in the area of digital diplomacy.

In December 2022 Japan published a new national security strategy, national defense strategy and increased its defense spending. Few months earlier NATO had published a new landmark Strategic Concept affirming that Russia uses hybrid and cyber means against the Allies, while China poses „systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security.“[4] The concept observes that China strives to control key technologies and supply chains, create strategic dependencies and „subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.“[5] The concept recognizes that “shared values depend on standards, technology and systems” – in other words, are not neutral to political ideology – and in this context the Alliance will strengthen cooperation with global partners who share the same values. [6] Given Japan’s leading position in 5G technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, cooperation on value-based technical standards with NATO nations would be significant, as those standards will determine if the future technology will be conducive to shared values and individual liberties.

Interestingly, Japan’s national security strategy mentions many same security concerns as the NATO’s Strategic Concept, among others, for example, a concern about the increasing partnership between China and Russia, and their efforts to undercut the rules-based international order.

In a short-term, NATO-Japan should deepen their cybersecurity cooperation in the four areas outlined below. An ideal venue for doing so is the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre for Excellence (CCDCOE), a NATO-accredited cyber defence research and training hub located in Tallinn, Estonia, which Japan joined in 2018. Japan has participated at the centre’s cyber exercise Locked Shields and at the NATO’s flagship annual cyber exercise Cyber Coalition. Those exercises are among largest in the world involving more than 2000 experts.

Leveraging the whole-of-society approach

First, Japan’s cooperation with CCDCOE could be expanded into engaging Japanese industry and academia in the centre’s core activities, such as designing and conducting education and training, and conducting research and publishing research reports. For example, both parties would benefit from sharing experience on the comprehensive (what is also called whole-of-society) approach to cybersecurity. CCDCOE adds value to NATO enterprise and nations by bringing together all stakeholders across the whole-of-the-society: civilian and military actors, public and private sector, and the academic community.

In doing so, CCDCOE could serve as a primary venue to advance Japan’s cooperation with NATO and other like-minded partners. The centre brings together 39 countries from Europe, North-America and Indo-Pacific, including South-Korea and Australia. Given CCDCOE’s established position in collaborating with a wide array of partners from NATO enterprise, and across national governments, industry and academia, the centre could be a stepping stone for Japan’s stronger contribution to NATO’s cyber defence. As mentioned, Japan could bring added value in critical technologies and next generation communication networks (such as Open RAN), which it masters. For example, the centre carries out a technical research in multinational 5G RAN networks federation and Japan has important expertise in Open RAN, which would be a valuable contribution to the CCDCOE and NATO enterprise and Alliance.

Enhancing information sharing

Cyber threat intelligence (CTI) sharing and countering hybrid threats and disinformation could be additional areas of cooperation because both Japan and NATO are prone to hybrid and cyberattacks from authoritarian countries like China and Russia. To deepen cooperation in these areas, however, tangible practical frameworks, and regular dialogue and exchange are needed. Best practices in countering hybrid threats, disinformation, and expertise on state-sponsored cyberattacks in Europe and Indo-Pacific should be shared timely and more actively between the two parties. Threat perceptions of European and Indo-Pacific countries in this area are sufficiently similar but discussing nuances and particular techniques, tactics and procedures of threat actors would be significant. NATO and Japan could enhance information sharing at political-strategic levels, and leverage from setting up a secure framework for technical (possibly classified) CTI sharing. Even if the obstacles preventing sharing classified information cannot be solved in a short term, actionable non-classified information sharing would serve as a stepping stone to increase trust and pave the way to further intelligence cooperation.

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Interestingly, with the watershed of launching a new national security strategy, Japan plans to introduce in cybersecurity area active defence “for eliminating in advance the possibility of serious cyberattacks that may cause national security concerns”.[7] According to the strategy, in case of “serious cyberattacks that pose security concerns against the Government, critical infrastructures, and others,” the Japanese government will consider measures “that allow it to penetrate and neutralize attacker's servers and others in advance to the extent possible.”[8] The Japanese active defence approach will enable the country to enhance prevention of cyberattacks before they realize, and could approximate to the US cyber strategy of “defending forward” and “persistent engagement”. The similarity of approaches could open the door for Japan to run threat hunting operations together with the US and other NATO partners. For example, the US has conducted dozens of such operations together with NATO nations and other partners which have been critical for gaining timely CTI. Sharing that time-critical CTI with domestic state and national critical infrastructure operators enables the country to take preventive measures before threats realize.

Such threat hunting operations have remarkably contributed to NATO nations’ situational awareness about Russian actors’ cyberattacks and disinformation. If Japan participated in these operations together with NATO nations it could gain valuable CTI for improving defences at home and nurture trust with NATO. NATO shares threat information with partners through the Malware Information Sharing Platform, which includes Japan, however, it is well known that intelligence sharing among Allies and with their partners is limited because of many political, operational, procedural and technical reasons. Despite this, unclassified information sharing could be improved through joint threat hunting operations 8in addition to joint exercises). NATO could also significantly benefit from the Japanese expertise notably concerning the Chinese actors and operations in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Public attribution and imposing costs

Improved information sharing would facilitate Japan’s more active coordination with the EU and NATO in attributing malicious cyberattacks. For example, recently Japan together with NATO and other allies condemned the Chinese government cyber activity.[9] In September 2022 the North Atlantic Council condemned cyberattacks against NATO country Albania, which several NATO nations attributed to Iran. Japan should continue to support NATO with its own declarations of solidarity in condemning malicious cyber activities, and possibly attributing those attacks together with individual NATO nations. This seems logical, as Japan has imposed economic (trade) sanctions on Russia and Belarus in responding to the Russian armed attack in Ukraine together with the EU and other democratic countries, which the European capitals have taken notice of and greatly appreciate. Imposing costs to malicious cyber actors would demonstrate Japan’s solidarity with the EU and NATO in cyber policy.

Capacity building

Japan’s contribution to cyber capacity building in the NATO Eastern flank (notably in Ukraine and Moldova) as well as in Indo-Pacific region would be another opportunity to foster Japan’s engagement with NATO. Japan could offer both financial and in-kind support to strengthen cybersecurity in Ukraine and Moldova in areas of education and training, information and intelligence sharing, as well as incident response, and digital forensics. In 2022 Ukraine joined the CCDCOE, which enables all CCDCOE member countries to improve cybersecurity assistance to Ukraine, as well as learn from Ukraine’s experience in countering Russia’s information warfare and cyberattacks.

To conclude, the NATO Strategic Concept affirms that NATO will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners.[10] Despite some of the procedural and technical difficulties such as the mentioned lack of secure information sharing channels, large geographical distance and linguistic and cultural differences, more importantly, Japan and NATO share values and interests in promoting free, open, peaceful and secure cyberspace, and in developing technologies based on those values and principles. Cooperation has deepened and should be further institutionalized through practical frameworks and regular dialogues and exchanges.
[1] „Secretary General at Keio University: NATO-Japan partnership is growing stronger,“ 1 February 2023, NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_211389.htm.
[2] Ibid.
[3] „Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Keio University. 1 February 2023, NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_211398.htm.
[4] „NATO’s Strategic Concept,“ NATO, https://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] „National Security Strategy,“ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1we_000081.html.
[8] Ibid.
[9] „Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Malicious Cyber Activity Attributable to the People’s Republic of China,“ The White House, 19 July 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/07/19/background-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-malicious-cyber-activity-attributable-to-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.
[10] „NATO’s Strategic Concept,“ NATO, https://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/.
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