The story so far: For decades, Japan has maintained a low profile on defence spending and remained dependent on its allies, mainly the U.S., for security guarantees. That has started changing with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) proposal of doubling the country’s defence budget to 2% of the GDP in five years, in line with NATO members. If Japan, whose post-War, U.S.-drafted Pacifist Constitution, achieves more military capabilities, it could further alter the balance of power of East Asia.
What does Japan’s Constitution say?
Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution states that the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat and use of force as a means of settling international disputes. It also states that the country would never sustain land, sea and air forces with war potential. The Constitution was introduced when Japan was occupied by U.S. forces, but for decades, Japan’s different political sections backed pacifism. Instead of a regular army, the country maintained Japan Self Defence Forces, with offensive weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear arms strictly banned. But with China’s rise in its neighbourhood, the nationalist sections within the ruling party, mainly under the leadership of the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, started pushing for more muscular, nationalist foreign and security policies.
In 2014, Japan’s government reinterpreted Article 9 and gave more powers to the forces — they can now come to the defence of allies if they were attacked. The Diet, Japan’s Parliament, later passed a series of legislation codifying the reinterpretation. Now, the LDP, under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is pushing for increased spending on research and defence production.
What is the LDP’s proposal?
For the fiscal year 2023, the government has already raised the defence budget to its highest level — six trillion yen ($43 billion) or more than 1% of the world’s third largest GDP. The LDP wants this to be doubled in five years as the geopolitical and regional risks the country is facing are rising. The Ministry of Defence is now planning to achieve “counter-attack capability”. As part of the proposals, Japan will begin mass producing surface-to-ship missiles, a domestically-developed cruise missile with a range of over 1,000 km (which can hit both China and North Korea, even though it’s not clear what Japanese law says about hitting targets inside another country) and high speed glide missiles. Japan plans to deploy these weapons in 2026. The budget has allocated research and development funds for hypersonic guided missiles, which are five times faster than the speed of sound. Japan is also developing a new fighter jet — F-X. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is designing the jet on which Japan has already spent more than 200 billion yen.
What triggered the change in policy?
The rapid rise of China and growing militarisation of North Korea were already strengthening the nationalist sections within Japan. Japan, which had occupied the whole of the Korean Peninsula and parts of China before the Second World War and had committed unspeakable crimes in its colonies, still has a testy relationship with China and the two Koreas. Recently, a missile North Korea launched flew over Japan and an ICBM fell near its territorial waters. In August, China carried out days-long live military drills around Taiwan, the self-ruled island internationally recognised as part of China that lies just 160 km west of Japan’s southern islands. Besides China and North Korea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also seems to have influenced Japan’s thinking. Japan and Russia, which fought a disastrous war in 1904-05, have disputes over the ownership of the Kuril Islands that separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. From Japan’s point of view, western military guarantees to Ukraine did not stop Russia from invading its neighbouring country. The obvious question Japan’s policymakers face is whether the security guarantees from the U.S. is enough to deter threats from a highly securitised neighbourhood where there are three nuclear powers—China, North Korea and Russia. This calculus seems to have quickened the push for remilitarism in Japan’s security thinking. In the past, any bid to move away from pacifism would attract public criticism, but the changing regional situation is altering Japan’s domestic political mood as well. A recent poll suggested that more than half of the Japanese public support raising the defence budget.