Japan’s Military Gets a Boost in Response to Threats from China and North Korea

US-China Rivalry and Digital Connectivity in the Indo-Pacific


The security perception in Japan is currently going through a serious review under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as the administration revives a politically sensitive debate on beefing up the country’s military and defense capabilities in the wake of growing threats from neighboring North Korea and China. In view of this evolving situation, it is acquiring new weapons to counter perceived external threats. Although revisiting the nuclear option could be one option, it is too problematic given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese public.1 The more plausible alternative is to strengthen the country’s military profile. That is precisely what the Kishida government is considering.


Rising Threats


On Nov. 26, the Cabinet approved a request for an increase in the defense budget of 770 billion yen (US$6.8 billion) to expedite the purchase of missiles, anti-submarine rockets and other weapons due to worries about the escalation of military activities by China, Russia and North Korea. This would bring Japan’s military spending for the current year to a new high of more than 6.1 trillion yen, an increase of 15 percent over the 5.31 trillion yen from 2020.2


The Kishida administration feels that in order to deter missile threats from North Korea and increasingly assertive activity by China around Japan’s remote southwestern islands and in Japanese airspace, bolstering Japan’s defenses is essential. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi informed the nation that a fleet of two Chinese H-6 bombers and two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers flew from the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea and to the Pacific Ocean. Japanese Self Defense Forces were forced to scramble jets to drive away the intruders.


The government has already calculated how the budget request will be used. Out of the total amount of 770 billion yen, 100 billion yen will be allocated to the acquisition of an advanced version of the US PAC-3 mobile surface-to-air missile interceptors and related equipment and as well as cruise missiles. Separately, more than 800 billion yen ($7 billion) will go toward the purchase of reconnaissance planes and equipment, including three P-1s, equipment for P-3Cs and vertical launch systems to be placed on two destroyers, to step up surveillance around Japan’s territorial waters and airspace.3 China claims the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu. In view of increased Chinese military activities, Japan wants to step up defenses in its southwestern regions and islands, including Ishigaki Island, north of the Senkaku Islands, by operationalizing a new military base with a land-to-sea missile-defense system. In order to deter the Chinese Coast Guard’s regular presence near the Senkaku Islands, Japan’s defense ministry also plans to build housing for ground troops on Ishigaki Island. Although the combined defense budget for 2021 will just cross the customary cap of 1 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP), Kishida has made it clear that he would have no hesitation about doubling military spending to cope with the worsening security environment.
There is also an economic dimension to Kishida’s plans to enhance defense expenditures. Japanese defense equipment and parts suppliers have long been struggling to maintain the country’s dwindling defense industry. With Kishida’s plan, there would be greater demand, which would help the industry. The increased demand is part of the nearly 36 trillion yen (US$315 billion) extra budget approved by the Cabinet on Nov. 26 to fund an economic stimulus package focusing on Covid-19 preparedness and support for pandemic-hit households and businesses.


Arming to the Teeth


Kishida’s plans have created uproar among opposition lawmakers, who have attacked the administration for prioritizing military spending over healthcare and Covid-19 prevention measures. A case in point is criticism that as the world’s fastest-aging country with a shrinking population and a declining birth rate, the government should have allocated more money to healthcare and other social services. But the government’s view is that it cannot remain oblivious to its security needs. In fact, Japan’s military spending and capabilities have grown continuously since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, increasing by 17 percent. Abe’s mission was to amend the so-called peace clause in the Constitution, Article 9, but he was unable to achieve that because of the complexities of domestic politics surrounding the issue.4 Instead, he enacted measures in 2015 to reinterpret the war-renouncing Article 9 to meet some of his intended objectives. His policy of collective self-defense allows Japan to deploy its forces overseas to come to the rescue of friendly countries even if the lives of Japanese personnel are not at risk.5


It is clear that in view of the perceived threat from its giant neighbor, Japan is quietly arming itself to the teeth. More recently, it has amassed a considerable stock of armaments while flying under the radar. It already has more aircraft carriers than China does, although it calls them “helicopter carriers.”6


Taiwan is another bother for Japan. China’s threat to use military force against Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, represents a bigger flashpoint than even the many maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Although Japan’s rising military spending might lead to an escalating regional arms race, this is an inevitable consequence of, and reaction to, China’s increasing belligerence. Former Prime Minister Abe made a virtual address on Dec. 1 to a Taiwanese think tank, the Institute for National Policy Research, in which he observed that the Sakishima Islands and Yonaguni Island, part of the Senkaku Islands chain, are a mere 100 kilometers or so away from Taiwan. Therefore, an armed invasion of Taiwan would be a grave danger to Japan.7 He warned China that Japan and the US could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan, and Beijing needs to understand this.


Japan is host to major US military bases, including on the southern island of Okinawa, a short flight from Taiwan, which would be crucial for any US support during a Chinese attack. There are about 55,000 American troops stationed on US bases in Japan, hence the familiar formulation that Japan is the “shield” and hosts the “sword.”


Under the revised Taiwan Relations Act,8 the US is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself. Although there are some ambiguities regarding whether the US would send armed forces to help Taiwan in a war with China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in November that the US and its allies would take unspecified “action” if China were to use force to alter the status quo over Taiwan.


Enhanced Missile Defense


Japan also toyed with the idea of buying an American missile-defense system, known as Aegis Ashore, which it wanted to deploy in northern and western Japan. Aegis Ashore represents a good form of defense for Japan in principle. But the cost of the hardware adjustments necessary to ensure that rocket boosters would not fall on Japanese territory would be prohibitive. Finally, under the Abe administration Tokyo decided to abandon the idea and looked for alternatives that could intercept incoming missiles. It remains unclear if Japan can revisit this option in the future.


Among the alternatives is to develop the ability to mount a missile counterattack. Japan is presumably already working on this. When Japan released new defense guidelines some time ago,9 the government indicated that it would acquire missiles that could be used to attack enemy warships or even land-based targets.


The long-running preoccupation of former Prime Minister Abe seems to have been passed on to his immediate successor, Yoshihide Suga, and now Kishida, who is exploring options to counter the possibility of ballistic missile attack by North Korea or China. If Japan goes through with its plan to create such a missile system, it would effectively shed the 75 years of pacifism that it proudly displayed before the world.10


The prevailing thinking in Japan seems to question whether the country can perpetually rely on the US commitment to its security, particularly amid periodic concerns in Washington about burden sharing. Therefore, the idea of building its own security independently is gathering greater currency. Moreover, despite US-Japan treaty commitments, certain US presidents have raised questions about Japan’s so-called free riding when the US commits to fight a war in Japan’s defense should the situation arise. The erosion of the world’s confidence in the US as a security provider grew when it decided to pull out of Afghanistan after two decades. This could also have dented Japan’s confidence in the US. It is possible that the US is no longer willing to remain the world’s policeman as its own internal issues mount, and many in the US believe it can ill afford to engage in events that do not directly impact its own interests. Still, the reality is that any Japanese prime minister will come under intense public scrutiny if a dramatic overhaul of the country’s security is undertaken. This works in China’s favor. There is no clarity about how this politically sensitive debate will unfold in Japan in the coming years. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is also unsure about convincing its coalition partner, Komeito, which has indicated it would not support the acquisition of long-range missiles.


Delicate Balance


Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, argues that although any talk of Japan acquiring missile-strike capabilities would be “scandalous,” North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and China’s muscle-flexing would compel any neighboring country to consider bolstering its own defenses.11 Opinion polls also endorse the view that Japan should be adequately equipped to take countermeasures before any missiles are launched from any enemy territory targeting Japan. That being said, by strengthening its own defenses, Japan does not want to be seen as provoking a conflict in the region. Even if any government in office takes advantage of the current circumstances to short-circuit public debate over the idea of acquiring long-range missiles, it would be at its own peril because there is overwhelming public opinion that opposes such a policy. The opposition would also create uproar over such a decision. And yet, US pressure on Japan (also on South Korea) to shoulder a greater share of defense costs could compel Tokyo to think seriously about acquiring long-range missiles.12


In view of the Covid-19 pandemic and the allocation of funds to fight it, on top of pressure to focus more on healthcare and social needs stemming from the ageing population, the Kishida government is compelled to rigorously assess the “cost-effectiveness of the hefty defense-related expenditures.”13 It also needs to factor in the costs that would be incurred if the transfer of US Marines from Okinawa to Guam, currently under negotiation with the US, takes effect. This means the actual costs envisaged would be even larger.


The truism is that since the security situation in the region has become more challenging, Kishida can make a convincing argument for the steady enhancement of the nation’s defense capabilities. Japan is alarmed that China has been increasing its military spending at a torrid pace, posing a greater threat to the region’s security. The issue gets more complicated because China’s opaque nature makes it difficult to believe what China officially discloses on what it spends and what it actually does. There is always a mismatch between the figures that are disclosed publicly and the actual expenditures incurred. This is an alarming scenario for the region.


All these weapons systems that Japan is planning would require massive spending. The Kishida administration has a moral duty to justify and explain to the public such heavy expenditures. The government is required to offer clear and detailed explanations about its decisions and their expected cost-effectiveness. Although China will not rejoice at the prospect of Japan strengthening its defense capabilities, it would be a welcome prospect for India because both India and Japan could work together, pooling their resources, in the common cause of regional security and stability.


The common view is that countries in the region are increasing their military potential as a result of China’s aggressive behavior, and America’s perceived reluctance to stay engaged in the region. The new situation sees the military balance changing in China’s favor. This is seen in the context of China’s recent aggression on a host of regional issues. In response, countries in the region are enhancing their military capabilities to catch up with China. Since no other Asian countries can match China unilaterally, they are exploring other ways to co-operate with groupings such as the Quad and AUKUS. Given the convergence of interests between India and Japan, both are likely to be on the same page in forging a common front to counter China’s emergence as a potential threat to regional stability. Viewed in this perspective, Japan’s decision to beef up its defense capabilities needs to be understood and endorsed.


1 For a detailed analysis on this issue, see Rajaram Panda, “Should Japan go Nuclear?” The Korean Journal of Defense Analyses, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 2014, pp.407-425.

2 Mari Yamaguchi, “Japan seeks extra defence budget amid China N Korea concern,” The Week, Nov. 26, 2021, www.theweek.in/wire-updates /international/2021/11/26/fgn42-japan-defence-ld-budget.html

3 ibid.

4 See Rajaram Panda, “Can Article 9 of Japanese Constitution be ever Amended?,” Vivekananda International Foundation, May 25, 2021, www.vifindia.org/article/2021/may/25/can-article-9-of-the-japanese-constitution-be-ever-amended

5 For a full analysis on this contentious issue, see Rajaram Panda, “Debate on Collective Self-Defence and Constitutional Revision in Japan,” Reitaku Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 26, 2018, pp. 1-19, reitaku.repo.nii.ac.jp/index.php?action=pages_view_main&active _action=repository_view_main_item_snippet&index_id=476&pn=1&count=20&order=17&lang=japanese&page_id=13&block_id=29

6 Neil Newman, “Pacifist Japan is quietly arming itself to the teeth, with China in its sights,” South China Morning Post, Nov. 22, 2021, www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3156494/pacifist-japan-quietly-arming-itself-teeth-china-its-sights?module=perpetual_scroll&pgtype=article&campaign=3156494

7 “Former PM Abe says Japan, US could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan,” The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 1, 2021, www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14492732

8 www.ait.org.tw/our-relationship/policy-history/key-u-s-foreign-policy-documents-region/taiwan-relations-act/

9 See Rajaram Panda, “Japan’s Defense White Paper 2021: China Riled by Mention of Taiwan Strait,” Vivekananda International Foundation, July 13, 2021, www.vifindia.org/article/2021/july/22/japans-defence-white-paper-2021-china-riled-by-mention-of-taiwan-strait

10 Motoko Rich, “Japan’s Been Proudly Pacifist for 75 Years: A Missile Proposal Challenges That,” The New York Times, Sept. 28, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2020/08/16/world/asia/japan-military-missiles-pacifist.html

11 Quoted in ibid.

12 ibid.

13 “Record defense budget mired in questions about cost-effectiveness,” The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, Sept. 3, 2021, www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14432394

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