Japan is well positioned to develop missiles. Here the new domestic rocket H3 prepares for launch at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima prefecture. Photo: Masanobu Nakatsukasa/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP

TOKYO – Japan’s move to scrap its 1% of GDP cap on defense spending made big front-page news late this week. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told the Nikkei newspaper in an exclusive interview that:

  • “We are not thinking in terms of a percentage of GDP. We will properly allocate the funds needed to protect our country.”
  • “The security environment surrounding Japan is changing rapidly with heightened uncertainty.”
  • “We must increase our defense capabilities at a radically different pace than in the past.”
  • “We will strengthen new areas such as space, cyber and electromagnetic warfare. Technological innovation is advancing at a tremendous pace and the nature of fighting is changing.”

Thank Chinese President Xi Jinping for that, with a nod to Kim Jong Un.

The 1% cap on defense spending was established under Prime Minister Takeo Miki in 1976. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said in 1987 he was abolishing it, but it instead remained an informal guideline in Japanese politics.

After 1990, it was only breached once, in the economic downturn triggered by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. Japanese defense spending has grown for the last nine consecutive years but has never exceeded 1% of GDP. Soon, it probably will.

Experts think Kishi’s remarks are not the typical Japanese case of talking the talk to mollify the American ally; rather, leaders in Tokyo see national self-interest at stake.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi delivers a speech during a press conference at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

One such Japan expert is Professor Chris Hughes of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick in Britain, who is also co-editor of The Pacific Review. He emailed the following comments:

Kishi in some ways on the 1% GDP ceiling is only repeating what [former prime minister Shinzo] Abe said in the National Diet in March 2017 that no such prohibition really existed and his government had no intention of being constrained by it. Japan has often breached the 1% GDP limit on defense expenditure if calculated in NATO terms.

But it will be interesting to see if it does push spending consistently above the 1% limit even while taking out military pensions used in the NATO calculation. This would be a serious signal of intent to China and Japan’s ally, the US. 

More generally, Kishi’s remarks confirm the security discourse in Japan that the regional security environment has changed for the worse and drastically and thus Japan is justified to devote the resources and acquire the capabilities necessary for its national defense and without past constraints.

Kishi is just reiterating the line of his [Ministry of Defense] predecessors and as laid down by Abe in the 2019 revised National Defense Program Guidelines that the nature of security has changed to encompass more threats and technologies and that Japan has to engineer its own defense transformation by enhancing jointness in the traditional land, sea and air domains and now more firmly into space, cyber and electromagnetic warfare to leverage the [Japan Self Defense Forces’] capabilities and technological edge.

It appears that Japan is ever more serious about putting the resources behind this transformation.

US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hold a news conference at the White House on April 16. China figured strongly in their talks. Photo: Doug Mills/Getty Images/AFP

Kishi’s statements, published Thursday, came just over a month after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in a joint appearance with US President Joe Biden in Washington, told the press that the two of them:

had serious talks on China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large.  We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas, and intimidation of others in the region. I conveyed my resolve to reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities while President Biden again demonstrated America’s commitment to the defense of Japan, including the application of Article 5 of the Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security for the Senkaku Islands. 

Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese) is actively disputed by China. The islands are about 220 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and about 370 kilometers from both Okinawa and the Chinese coast.

Defense Minister Kishi mentioned strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities along the entire Nansei (Ryukyu) Island chain, which stretches from Osumi, just south of Kyushu, to Yaeyama, east of Taiwan. Okinawa, the location of major US bases, is the largest of these islands.

According to the Nikkei, “Kishi also expressed an intention to add a third unit to the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, based in Sasebo, Nagasaki.”

“It is very important to deploy units to the island areas,” he said.

The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (Japanese marines) trains with the US Marine Corps and has conducted exercises with the Filipino Marines and with British and Australian forces in Queensland.

Strike capability

“There’s an awareness that just improving our interception capabilities may not really be enough to protect the public,” Kishi said. That seems to suggest a move to a greater emphasis on strike capability to deter would be attackers.

This is the next political “red line” that Japan’s defense capability is likely to cross.

Japan Self Defense Forces conducts a Pac-3 anti-missile drill at Kasugai Base in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, on Feb. 2. The surface-to-air missile exercise was opened to media. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Paul Kallender, senior researcher with Keio Research Institute at Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus in Japan and co-author of In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy, has this to say:

Congratulations to the present LDP leadership for their staged and moderate steps toward gradually and reasonably reframing the political, emotional, diplomatic semantics and calculus on Japan’s desperate need to square up to and reflect current realities. 

Japan, the US, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam et al are dealing with a rising power that has openly declared its position and that is already engaged in hybrid and gray-zone warfare to achieve those goals. It has already provided ample evidence that it will not hesitate to rewrite history [and] tear up and ignore past understandings, agreements and treaties in pursuit of those goals.

At the sharp end of things, China has already crossed from assertiveness to belligerency, as has been openly signaled just recently by the so-called Coast Guard Law. To wit, China is now is on the cusp of moving to a potentially aggressive phase against which determined, credible, and joined-up deterrence is the only logical answer. 

Against all this, the published comments of Mr Suga and Mr Kishi may be seen as connecting dots and filling in the framework laid out explicitly in Japan’s latest National Defense Program Outlines that call for the SDF to develop a creditable deterrence based on the ability to prosecute military action seamlessly with the US (and, perhaps in the future, Quad) forces across land, sea, air (now, at last amphibious) space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic domains, as laid out in the latest 2015 Revised Guidelines. 

In the context of building these defensive capabilities, and the SDF’s new policy of building a multi-domain defense force, the statement on defense spending is just plain common sense in that Japan will probably need to budget a little more to achieve those goals. And, in fact, they merely re-iterate at least one statement by Mr Suga’s predecessor Mr Abe. In the broader context, they simply reflect the new consensus that Japan needs to do more and reflect the new alarming reality that Japan and its neighbors have been forced to face…. 

A further context is a return to normalcy in US-Japan diplomatic relations and the scrapping of the Aegis Ashore system. 

The more cynical amongst us may choose to lend at least some credence to the idea that Japan may have played its hand brilliantly. The purchase of the Aegis Ashore system may have been a highly visible sop to Mr Trump, who had little knowledge of, interest in or desire to master the intricacies of defense and deterrence strategy of the US with Japan, its closest and most important ally in Asia, if not the world. Mr Trump could show off his achievement in getting the Japanese to purchase this expensive boondoggle, while the Japanese could bide their time.

Then, the outcry, much of it merited, about the Aegis Ashore system. In fact, NIMBY and other legitimate opposition and concerns about such systems and military installations has a long history in Japan, going back to the late 1960s and the Naganuma Case against the deployment of Nike-J ABM systems (now standard kit for the ASDF [Air Self Defense Force] in the form of PAC-3/MSE systems), and ongoing with the Henoko base issue

As with local authorities with Japan’s nuclear reactors, local opposition and concerns were usually bought off with liberal wheel greasing and legal opposition suppressed through the reliably conservative judiciary. Then suddenly the Aegis Ashore outcry, given front-page news. And, remarkably, the equally sudden and remarkable willingness of the [ruling Liberal Democratic Party] to listen. 

Aegis Ashore, a static missile defensive system (or, more crudely, a missile magnet), represents a dodo for deterrence for Japan. In the need to improve missile defense, it is far, far better to increase the mobile, upper-tier system via the MSDF [Maritime Self Defense Force], which is already fully integrated with US systems and much more survivable, tested and already “out there” in several senses. 

With Mr Trump and Aegis Ashore both consigned to the dustbin, and the resources for BMD [ballistic missile defense] more properly redistributed to the MSDF with two more cruisers, which can provide a much better, survivable, less vulnerable and more capable upper-tier BMD net for anything Chinese or Korean dropping out of space, Japan can invest in long-range strike capabilities, which make far more military sense.

Instead of static defensive missiles, capabilities and investment are now directed in longer-range missiles on the F-2s and F-35As and F-35Bs; missiles which are much cheaper, smarter, survivable and useful, and for which the Japanese already have excellent technologies, and with which the ASDF has growing competence and experience…. 

We may … choose to believe that Mr Kishi really does mean long-range strike,  a capability that is desperately needed for creditable deterrence in defense of the Nansei islands, Senkaku islets … and elsewhere.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks about suspending plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Photo: Masanori Genko/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP

Japan’s pacifist experiment under a US Occupation-imposed no-war constitution has earned the country respect from antiwar activists but invited bullying from China. As a geopolitical strategy, its time has passed.

As Bertrand Russell is credited with having said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

Japan is becoming a “normal nation,” with a military that already ranks fifth in the world according to Global Firepower – after the US, Russia, China and India but ahead of South Korea, France, the UK and Germany. (Global Firepower 2021 Military Strength Ranking).

For reference, Germany ranks 15th. The others named in the previous paragraph rank first to eighth. Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, Egypt and Iran rank ninth to fourteenth.

Any assessment of the balance of forces in the western Pacific must compare China not just with the US but with the US plus Japan.

Scott Foster, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.