Author: Kristi Govella, German Marshall Fund
2022 was expected to be a defining year for Japanese security policy even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Public debates and internal negotiations have been ongoing for months over the country’s forthcoming National Security Strategy, National Defence Program Guidelines and Medium-Term Defence Force Program. But the Ukraine war could set the scene for a ‘critical juncture’ in Japanese defence policy making, providing the government an opportunity to enact major changes that may not have been possible before.
Japan ranks ninth in the world in terms of total military expenditure, but its defence budget has been flat for decades. After the Second World War, Japan self-imposed constraints on its security policy, including by limiting its defence spending to 1 per cent of GDP. Spending has increased slowly since 2010 due to concerns about an increasingly aggressive China and an unpredictable North Korea, culminating in record defence budget for fiscal year 2022 that exceeded the 1 per cent ceiling.
Some Japanese politicians were already advocating for increased defence spending before the Ukraine war. In May 2021, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi emphasised the need for Japan to move beyond its GDP limit and increase its defence capabilities at a ‘radically different pace than in the past’. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy platform for the 2021 Lower House election included the goal of spending 2 per cent of GDP (about US$100 billion) on defence.
The subsequent invasion of Ukraine in February changed the political context around these proposals in several ways. First, it incited a strong reaction from both the Japanese government and public. Tokyo was unusually proactive in condemning Russia’s actions and joining the United States and Europe in imposing sanctions. Japanese citizens were shaken by the images of the conflict. Polls show that about 90 per cent of Japanese respondents believe that the mass-killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russian troops is a war crime and 86 per cent support the sanctions against Russia.
Second, the war reframed the discourse around defence spending in Japan, emphasising the risk of inaction. For example, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe argued that other countries won’t extend a hand to those who won’t defend themselves. Calls for an expanded defence budget now seem to have more legitimacy. In April 2022, the LDP Research Committee on Security recommended that Japan make plans to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP over the next five years. In a joint statement with US President Joe Biden on 23 May 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida shared his determination to secure a substantial increase in Japan’s defence budget, though he did not mention a specific numerical target.
Third, the war in Ukraine has significantly bolstered public support for defence spending among a population that is generally ambivalent toward security issues. The conflict has heightened Japanese awareness of the risks in their own neighbourhood — particularly the threat posed by China. In a February 2022 poll conducted by Nikkei and TV Tokyo, 77 per cent of respondents expressed concern that Russia’s actions could inspire China to make a similar move against Taiwan.
Consequently, the war in Ukraine is creating a critical juncture that may provide the LDP with an opening to enact a dramatic doubling of Japan’s defence spending. But there are a few caveats. There remain dissenting voices within Japan. Opposition parties have expressed misgivings, and the leader of Komeito — the LDP’s long-time coalition partner — has said that the 1 percent limit should be ‘cherished’. While it seems likely that the LDP will increase Japanese defence spending, these objections may moderate the size of any increase or extend the period over which it will take place.
In addition, an increase in spending will not necessarily equate to improved security for Japan — this depends on how the government chooses to use these additional resources. Significant public attention has focussed on the possibility of Japan acquiring a new long-range strike capability to bolster its military deterrence — a controversial move because it would broaden the definition of what Japan has historically considered necessary for its self-defence. Tokyo also plans to develop a next-generation fighter jet to replace the F-2, another project that could consume most of the proposed increase in defence spending.
Less flashy applications of the funding could have a more substantial impact on Japanese security, especially if the budget is used to buy systems to enhance situational awareness, ease information sharing, and improve joint training and interoperability with the United States.
Finally, the overall health of the Japanese economy will also have a strong influence on the effectiveness and sustainability of any increase in defence spending. If economy falters or if the weakness of the Japanese yen continues, this will reduce the impact of increasing military spending to 2 per cent of GDP. Japan’s aging society will also make it harder to justify defence spending in the face of soaring healthcare and pension costs.
The Japanese government is expected to begin discussing its defence plans more publicly and concretely now that the July Upper House election has concluded. It seems likely that 2022 will be an even more pivotal year for Japanese security policy than previously anticipated. The conditions are in place for significant defence policy change, if the ruling LDP can skilfully navigate domestic political debates at this emerging critical juncture.
If policymakers succeed in winning over the Japanese domestic audience, they will then have to carefully craft their external messaging to neighbouring countries — especially those who harbour suspicions of Japan’s military intentions or have traumatic memories of its wartime past.
Dr Kristi Govella is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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