Drumbeat of change: servicemen from Japan's Self-Defense Force on parade. Image: JGSDF / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Japan’s latest defence document sets out the arguments for a historic increase in spending to match the shifting global security environment. But the task of convincing the Japanese public is far from complete.
The white paper entitled ‘Defense of Japan 2023’ had a difficult task, coming less than eight months after the publication of three major and headline-grabbing national security policy documents. Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy and Defense Buildup Program, released in December 2022, announced historically significant commitments, including a dramatic increase in defence spending, acquisition of long-range strike weapons, and a pivot in force posture to reinforce the island chain that extends from the main islands down to Taiwan. This made for a hard act to follow.
Yet policymaking is only half the battle, and as Japan begins the implementation process, there are reasons to suspect that this could prove the harder part. Considerable gaps still separate the ambition from the reality. After generations of being educated in an identity as a pacifist nation and relying on the US to shoulder the main burden of Japan’s defence, Japanese society and other government departments have to be convinced of the need to provide the country with the resources to assume primary responsibility for its own defence in an era of – as the white paper diplomatically puts it – ‘changes to the power balance’.
For one indicator of this gap, we need only follow the money. The December 2022 commitments to increase the defence budget triggered a still unresolved debate on the question of finance. Initially, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida proposed to source the money through higher taxes. This partly reflected concern over Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which stands above 250%. Opting for tax rather than borrowing also sends a more convincing signal that the increases are sustainable. If all goes to plan, by 2027 Japan should be on track to have the third biggest defence budget in the world. However, opposition to this approach – including from inside the ruling party – caused Mr Kishida to back off. Among the competing demands on the budget is an expensive programme designed to raise the birth rate, inter alia by doubling child support. But the same demographic trends that are making it harder to hit military recruitment targets are also shrinking the tax base. The government is now reported to be considering selling off some of its stake in Japanese companies – worth over $200 billion – to help raise the money. A law was passed in June to create a defence funding pool made up of such non-tax revenues. Some combination of tax, debt and other resources now appears more likely. However, the one-off nature of non-tax solutions is a disadvantage from a strategic point of view, and Kishida’s retreat reveals how far the government still has to go to convince key constituencies of the urgency and importance of resourcing a stronger and more independently capable defence capacity. Clearly, there is more to be done on the public diplomacy front.
The white paper offers a renewed effort of presentation that seems intended to bring home to the Japanese population and others the rationale for the planned build-up in defence capabilities
The defence white paper published on 28 July 2023 contains hardly any new information about the threats facing Japan and the capacities it needs to confront them. Rather, it offers a renewed effort of presentation that seems intended to bring home to the Japanese population and others the rationale for the planned build-up in defence capabilities that is necessary to achieve deterrence in the current context. Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada launches this narrative in the opening line of the white paper’s foreword with a bold historical assertion:
'The world is at a turning point in history. The international community is facing its greatest trial since World War II, and we have entered a new era of crisis.'
This suggests a greater trial than the Cold War, which was hardly ‘cold’ at all for the region around Japan. Is Hamada’s rhetoric pure hyperbole, or is he justified in the judgement that the present era’s challenges surpass those of a period that saw an unbroken chain of Asian wars – from the Chinese civil war, the Vietnamese war of liberation and the Malay ‘emergency’ in the 1940s, through the Korean war in the 50s, the Indonesian ‘confrontation’ and renewed Vietnam War in the 60s, to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the China’s invasion of Vietnam that lasted until the end of the 1970s?
To answer this question, we have to step into the shoes of the officials responsible for Japan’s security. From this perspective, while there was incessant violence in Asia during the Cold War, the threat to Japan itself and to the stability of the basic principles of the world order that allowed for Japan’s return to sovereignty and rise to prosperity may appear more severe now than they did then. Mr Hamada’s foreword continues:
'Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is an unprecedented situation. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has shown disregard for international law by launching an aggression against a sovereign country and repeating rhetoric and actions that can be interpreted as threats of nuclear weapons use.'
The combination of disregard for law, naked conquest, and nuclear threats by a neighbour of Japan might seem bad enough, but it is only part of Japan’s security problems. A closer neighbour, North Korea, has not only developed nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems (which it flies over Japan and sometimes drops into surrounding waters), but its ability to do so while under sanctions by the UN Security Council justifies doubts about the reliability of that institution itself, as well as the attitude of China to its responsibilities as a permanent member. If Beijing’s inability to acknowledge Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not enough cause for concern, its military has taken to patrolling the seas and airspace around Japan together with Russian naval and airborne nuclear forces.
The combination of disregard for law, naked conquest, and nuclear threats by neighbouring Russia is only part of Japan’s security problems
Accordingly, the white paper makes the following evaluations. North Korea’s military activities pose a ‘grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security’. Russia’s military activities in the Indo-Pacific region, together with its strategic coordination with China, are described as of ‘strong security concern’. China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities are described as ‘a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community’, presenting an ‘unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge’.
This rate of change in the security environment that justifies a shift in Japan’s defence is communicated in a special feature titled ‘An Era of Upheavals: 10 Years of Change’. This era begins in 2013, the year of Japan’s first NSS, and coincidentally the year Xi Jinping topped his titles of Communist Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission by becoming President of China. This section contains numerous upward-tilting graphs detailing the increase in threats; Japanese defence investment; and cooperation with Japan’s ally the US, ‘like-minded’ countries, and others.
Ultimately, Japan’s defence establishment has drawn two main conclusions: that there is a need to defend the country ‘by ourselves’ (by implication not relying as much on the US), and to achieve deterrence that makes the opponent think ‘attacking Japan will not achieve its goals’. In material and technological terms, Japan has the wherewithal to achieve both objectives. The question is whether Japan’s population – particularly its taxpayers and would-be military recruits – can be convinced that this is a priority.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Philip Shetler-Jones
Senior Research Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security