by Anna Matthei
Image: Members of the Self-Defense Force's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade take part in a landing exercise in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture (via The Japan Times).
Japan restricted its military capabilities in Article 9 of its constitution after the end of the Second World War. Their constitution is also called the "MacArthur Constitution," since US General MacArthur and many of the American officials who headed the occupation of Japan during the post-war period directed its writing. Article 9 was written with the intent that Japan would not go to war again. MacArthur envisioned a disarmed Japan that was overseen by the United Nations, but tensions in the Indo-Pacific rise today, MacArthur’s dream may not come to fruition.
The Japanese Special Defense Forces (SDF) were established in 1954, taking heed to these military limits. Traditionally, Japan spends about 1% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense, but in recent months, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has doubled the defense budget to 2%. This rise in budget will make Japan the third largest military spender after the United States and China. This sudden development has been long overdue, with Chinese military modernization and North Korea nuclear missile programs simmering across the East Sea, and the Ukrainian War was Japan’s wakeup call to start enhancing its military capabilities. However, certain policies may worsen tensions in the Indo-Pacific since Japan has put China at the top of its list of threats.
Three documents will guide Japan’s military expansion.
The National Security Strategy, which presents new diplomatic, economic, technological, and military pillars that will be developed to strengthen national security. This document has singled out China, North Korea, and Russia as its major threats.
The National Defense Plan, which lays out steps to strengthen the military. It incorporates three main ideas: a new integrated operational command for the Self-Defense Force’s (SDF) three branches, the expansion of space and cyber capabilities, and the acquisition of long-range strike capabilities.
Japan’s government debt is now 262% of its GDP, highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To finance the increase in military spending, the Prime Minister has set a hike in defense taxes. This hike in taxes has been met with great public disapproval. A poll from Kyodo news shows that 65% of the Japanese population disapprove of the tax hikes for defense spending, and the ratings for the Prime Minister are plummeting.
Protesters have been standing outside the Prime Minister’s office calling the policy shift unconstitutional, chanting “military power does not create peace.” Though this policy shift will increase Japan’s defense capabilities rather than offense, there is room for skepticism. Japan is increasingly indicating that it will come to Taiwan’s aid and work with the US if China were to launch an invasion; but Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional law expert at Waseda University, states that anticipating a preemptive attack from China can be legally murky. This is because, in order to know if an attack is pre-emptive or not, an attack from the threat must be carried out. However, simply having the military capabilities and using them are different. Despite possible legal implications, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida argues that it is vital for Japan to keep pace with regional military capacities and develop its counter-strike capabilities.
In recent years, North Korea and China have continued to test and advance their military power, applying pressure to their Indo-Pacific neighbors; North Korean missiles travel through Japanese territory frequently and without warning. But what has put China at the top of Japan’s list of threats are China’s developments in hypersonic glide technology.
The difference between the fast, but easy to predict ballistic missiles and the new hypersonic glide technology is that the hypersonic vehicle – despite its name – is actually slower because it has to go through the atmosphere. However, because it is going slower, it can also maneuver in the atmosphere. This makes it difficult for other military powers to figure out where it's going to end up until it is too late, making it difficult for the United States to come to Japan’s aid in time. China’s satellite weaponry, cyber offenses, and surface-to-ship missiles, in combination with the Chinese military often operating near Japan’s waters and airspace, have only made matters worse.
At a recent press conference with China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, Agence France-Presse asked how China poses a threat to Japan. Wang responded with how Japan has “deviated from [its] commitment to bilateral relations…and smeared China for no reason.” Following this statement, he then warned Japan about exaggerating the so-called “China threat.” It will be interesting to see if Japan decides to keep its enemies closer than its friends as it attempts to maintain diplomatic relations with China while still developing the military with its allies.
Though financially taxing, this increase in Japanese military spending compliments much of the Department of Defense’s work in modernizing the Australian and South Korean military. It is likely that the White House will approve of US Tomahawk cruise missiles being sent to Japan, which will allow Japan to strike targets deep within continental Asia, giving potential threats another reason not to launch an attack. The United States can also help guide Japan in preparing for any conflicts via munition stockpiles and hardening facilities in areas such as fuel supplies and storage.
However, Japan plans to develop its own weapons, including advanced fighter jets, hypersonic missiles and armed drones. One reason for its hesitancy on relying on the United States are concerns regarding the election of another president like former President Donald Trump, who downplayed the US’ traditional alliances during his term. Therefore, in lieu of relying on its alliance with the United States, Japan is set to collaborate with the UK and Italy in making a next generation fighter aircraft.
The United States can rebuild trust with Japan by actively participating and supporting Japan in international organizations like the UN and by continuing to build bilateral trade agreements with Japan to boost both the US and Japanese economy. However, even if these ideas were to be implemented today, rebuilding trust overseas will take years to do. Regardless, China is one of the largest strategic rivals to the European Union and a regional threat to democracies in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it is vital that we work with our allies in sustaining and strengthening our own democracy and democracies overseas.
Despite the murky legal and financial details as well as the Japanese public’s dwindling support, in light of the war in Ukraine, it is undeniably important that Japan strengthens its military and counter-strike capabilities. The threat of Chinese, North Korean, and Russian military power is too great for Japan to ignore as an ally to the United States, other democracies in the Indo-Pacific, and its citizens.
This increase in Japanese defense spending can be a great opportunity for the United States to strengthen its cooperation and intelligence with Japan, as well as its overall strategy in East Asia. However, the United States must take time to re-instill trust in its traditional allies. Japan is not confident that the United States can stay consistent on its foreign policy. Unless the United States can boost its international reputation, it is likely that more countries will become weary of its political strength and stability.
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