Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Does Japan intend to become a military superpower? --Truth behind “Defense Expenditures to Double in Five Years “
KAWATO Akio / Former Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and a Newsweek Japan columnist

January 10, 2023
In December 2022, the Japanese government revised for the first time in five years its National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Force Development Plan, the three documents that define the basics of its security policy. According to these documents, the defense expenditures are expected to total 43 trillion yen (about 310 billion US dollars) over the next five years, approximately 55% more than the 27.5 trillion yen spent over the previous five years (assuming 2% annual inflation, the real increase over the five years will approximately be 45%). With this increase, the goal is to raise the defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2027 (currently just over 1%).

Japan was temporarily disarmed after its defeat in World War II, and even after that, with public opinion averse to war, the defense budget was limited to less than 1% of GDP, and the armament remained at a medium size designed only for self-defense.

Nevertheless, in terms of the size of its defense budget, Japan ranks ninth in the world (in 2020) after Germany and France, and in the Far East, it has the third largest military force after China and the United States. This is symbolized by the upcoming completion of the conversion of two large cruisers into light aircraft carriers, which will deploy F-35B fighter jets.

It remains to be seen whether this major defense force expansion plan will be implemented as planned. For the time being, the government will be able to accommodate the necessary expenditures within the existing budget structure (e.g., by using defense-related expenditures from the budgets of ministries other than the Ministry of Defense), but in a few years' time, the government will have to make difficult decisions such as raising taxes and issuing government bonds to secure the requisite financial resources. It is not clear whether the government at that time has the intention or the power to make such decisions. The accumulated amount of government bonds in Japan is more than twice the GDP, and further issuance could cause the government bond market to collapse and sharply increase the burden of interest payments. And while the Japanese public understands the need for increased defense capabilities, they tend to turn against the idea of higher taxes.

Perceived Threats for Japan

The majority of Japanese public opinion used to be either opposed to or skeptical of an excessive increase in defense capabilities. This was because they felt that the stability of Japan and its surrounding areas is maintained by providing bases for the US military. They may also be subconsciously distrustful of Japan's policy-making circles, which had sent the Japanese people to the front lines before the war and then lost miserably. In recent years, North Korea has increasingly launched missiles in the direction of Japan, but only a few people believe that North Korea will actually attack Japan.

However, things are changing. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 showed that "even in the modern civilized world, there are countries that will wage war on others.“Although Ukraine is far from Japan, the Japanese media carry vivid reports of the war every day, and even the Japanese who have not been with military affairs up to now are learning through TV commentaries the importance of the performance of individual weapons and of the supply capabilities, etc.

In addition, many Japanese have come to realize that they cannot remain totally dependent on the United States for its security. This is largely due to the demonstration by the Trump administration that the U.S. can become a country that thinks only of its own interests. President Trump even attempted to overtly use the U.S. security assurances as a bargaining chip to make Japan share more of the cost of keeping the U.S. forces in Japan.

China's military buildup has made Japan's position vulnerable. China has deployed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching Japan, which can be deterred only by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella”. The U.S. naval power used to be seen as overwhelming that of China, but today it has become difficult for the U.S. Navy to approach China's vicinity in a contingency. This is particularly true for the Senkaku Islands, a Japanese territory off the coast of Taiwan (China began claiming the islands in the 1970s; lately, the China Coast Guard ships have been frequenting Japanese territorial waters around the islands); Japan will have to defend Senkaku on its own.

And the intensity of North Korea's missile threats has defied any normal sense (although North Korea explains that this is because the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and other activities threaten its security). Japan is looking to deter North Korea's moves by increasing its ability to shoot down these missiles en route, while at the same time equipping itself with the capability to strike North Korean bases.

Russia has deployed intermediate-range "Kalibr" missiles in the Far East and repeatedly conducts launch exercises of these missiles apparently to keep the U.S. forces in Japan in check. Unlike during the Cold War, however, the U.S. forces in Japan are not confronting the Russian forces in the Far East. Moreover, the Russian forces in the Far East are thin, and after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, they have moved their forces to the front against Ukraine, so they are not a threat that Japan needs to deal with today.

Major New Weapons

In any case, the days are over when some of the opposition parties contended that increased defense capability was tantamount to Japan’s engagement in an overseas war and incited public opinion toward the anti-government direction. In the preparation of the three documents, there was virtually no ideological objection from the opposition parties. The debate over defense has lost its erstwhile “theological” character of "defense or no defense". It is now about what is necessary for defense and where the limits lie.

Therefore, I will list some of the new weapons that stand out in the "Defense Force Development Plan" adopted at the end of 2022.

1) Acquisition of intermediate-range missiles (the capability to destroy the missile bases of adversary countries to serve as a deterrent)

2) Enhanced capability to deal with hypersonic weapons.

3) Development of unmanned aircraft. Development of a capability to shoot down the adversary’s unmanned aircraft.

4) Strengthening space domain awareness (SDA) capabilities, cyber security capabilities, electromagnetic wave capabilities, etc.

5) Strengthening the Self Defense Forces’ transportation and resupply capabilities.

6) Enhancement of sustainability in fighting (e.g., ammunition stockpiling)

Possibility of overseas deployment

Postwar Japan, along with Germany, has based its national power on economic and technological capabilities rather than military power. And there is currently no prospect for amending the current Constitution, which greatly restricts military power. Although Japan's Self-Defense Forces have a small base in Djibouti, Africa, for combating piracy off the coast of Somalia, there are no plans to increase their presence overseas in addition to this.

What Japan's SDF would do in the event of a contingency around Japan, such as a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan, has yet to be determined, but it would probably not participate directly in the fighting, and at best would be limited to aiding U.S. military actions. This is largely due to Japan's proximity to China and its vulnerability to missile attacks.

More noteworthy is the fact that the Foreign Ministry's draft budget for the next fiscal year includes 2 billion yen (about 14 million U.S. dollars) for "expenses to support the strengthening of the security capabilities of like-minded countries”. Although the amount is small, it has a large potential for the future. Japan has been providing SDF ammunition and other supplies to ASEAN and other countries and has also provided coast guard vessels. But now the government will have a secure budget for this. If Japan can more quickly provide resources in response to foreign countries' requests, short of sending its own armed forces, it will become a powerful tool for diplomacy.

In sum, Japan has taken a major step toward increasing defense spending and equipment. However, the three documents do not mention the development of Japan's own nuclear deterrent capability or the introduction of a conscription system. The development of a command structure for the integrated operation of land, sea, and air forces is still in its early stage.

On the other hand, even if we talk about enhancing defense capabilities, we must not repeat the example of the prewar period, when the military continued to expand its external expansion based on a shallow understanding of international affairs, and as a result, dragged Japan into a war with the United States. Defense debates must be conducted as openly as possible, with the participation of the Self-Defense Forces staff, and we must always be careful not to stray in the wrong direction.

Kawato Akio is a former Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and a Newsweek Japan columnist
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

河東 哲夫 / 元駐ウズベキスタン・タジキスタン大使、ニューズウィーク日本版コラムニスト

2023年 1月 10日




















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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Does Japan intend to become a military superpower? --Truth behind “Defense Expenditures to Double in Five Years “