Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rides on a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Type 10 tank during a review at JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on November 27, 2021. Photo: JiJi

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was hardly considered a neo-samurai when he took office in October 2021. But nearly eight months into the former diplomat’s tenure, his pivot to security matters is unmistakable.

On June 8, his cabinet approved a fiscal plan that would massively raise defense spending. While the document deployed typical bureaucratic jargon to add opacity, it made clear that the aim was to lift Japanese defense spending to the level of NATO countries – i.e. 2% of GDP, double its current level.

On June 10, Kishida will be the star speaker at Singapore’s Shangri-la Dialogue, East Asia’s leading defense forum. He is also, according to press reports, likely to attend a NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid later this month.

Moreover, the Japanese leader has kicked off negotiations on a defense agreement with the distant UK, signed one with Australia and inked an unprecedented arms sales deal with Thailand.

All this may surprise those familiar with Japan’s customarily cautious defense actions and its restraining pacifist constitution – not to mention Kishida’s own reputation as a more dovish leader than his two predecessors.

Kishida’s arrival in the hot seat followed the resignations of the hawkish Shinzo Abe and his chosen successor, the short-lived Yoshihide Suga, widely considered Abe’s right-hand man.

Yet at a time when the yen is plummeting to new lows, the economy seeks to clamber out of its Covid-era trench and the country cautiously prizes open its borders, Kishida is diving deep into national, regional and even international security affairs.

New global uncertainties that are exacerbating long-term strategic trends, combined with intra-party pressures at home, are likely Kishida’s driving impetus, experts say.

An unlikely warrior

Though he was briefly acting defense minister in 2017, Kishida is no warrior. His highest-profile posts, pre-premiership, were related to diplomacy and policy.

He was Tokyo’s foreign affairs minister from 2012-2017 – the longest incumbent to ever hold that position – and chaired the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Policy Council from 2017-2020.

His family hails from Hiroshima, and Kishida invited then-US president Barack Obama to visit his home city. He has authored a distinctly unwarlike book, “A World Without Nuclear Weapons,” and been accommodating of both China and Russia.

A 2021 profile of Kishida written by Japanese academic Daisuke Akimoto soon after he won the national leadership predicted a reasonable approach to Beijing.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida points to his party’s strong electoral performance. Photo: Screengrab / Getty

Kishida’s “Kochikai” faction of the ruling LDP has “…a pro-China tradition, and Kishida would look to carefully balance the Sino-Japanese relationship and the Japan-US alliance,” Akimoto wrote.

Moreover, during his tenure as foreign minister, Kishida had struck up close personal relations – extending to drinking games – with his veteran Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

But it is Kishida who is now overseeing a seismic increase in defense spending by the world’s third-largest economy.

Tokyo’s defense expenditures in 2022 budget totaled 5.4 trillion yen ($40.9 billion), or approximately 1% of national GDP.  Under Kishida’s plan, that will be doubled – a factor which may prompt a rush of global arms merchants to Tokyo.

The Mainichi newspaper, in an editorial yesterday, slammed Kishida’s Cabinet for approving a fiscal plan to double defense outlays to NATO-member level within five years.

“It is necessary to consider the development of defense capabilities in response to changes in the security environment,” the newspaper admitted, while adding: “Rather than just focusing on a number, there must also be careful discussion of how increased spending will mesh with Japan’s existing defense-only posture.”

Kishida is well placed to escape immediate domestic criticism. On Friday, he will be in Singapore as the star of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a defense forum that customarily invites ministerial-level guests.

This year’s event features such high-profile presenters as China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe and United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

In his keynote speech, Kishida is expected to put forth Tokyo’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, which, according to Japanese media, will include maritime cooperation with 20 nations.The last Japanese premier to address Shangri La was Abe in 2014.

Kishida’s Defense Minster, Nobuo Kishi, will hold a sideline chat on Sunday with China’s Wei – the first in-person meeting between the two. According to Japanese media, Kishi will raise Tokyo’s concerns over Chinese maritime activities in the East China Sea.

These concerns are likely to include reference to the disputed, but Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and possibly to recent Chinese carrier drills off of Okinawa.

The Senkaku Islands are hotly contested by China and Japan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

But Kishida’s defense outlook extends beyond the Indo-Pacific. According to the Japan Times, quoting unnamed government sources, he will be the first Japanese premier to attend a NATO leaders summit, set for Madrid, Spain, on June 29-30.

Some reports have speculated that Kishida might hold his first-ever meeting with newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has stated his interest in improving strained ties with Japan and upgrading trilateral cooperation with the US.

All the above follows Kishida’s May trip to the UK, where he and British counterpart Boris Johnson signed off on the start of negotiations on a Reciprocal Access Agreement, or RAA.

The agreement would permit upgraded defense cooperation in terms of personnel, equipment exchanges and bilateral drills. The UK’s BAE Systems also looks likely to work on Japan’s next-generation fighter project.

The model for the Japan-UK RAA would appear to be the Australia-Japan RAA Kishida signed with Canberra in January. And earlier in May, Kishida had inked an agreement with Thailand under which Tokyo can sell military gear to Bangkok, and invest in its military-industrial sector.

Not so pacifist anymore

Kishida’s flurry of security engagements is raising new questions about Japan’s pacifist credentials well beyond its borders.

“Japan is an ever-more important security actor at a time of rising global geopolitical tensions,” wrote James Crabtree, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies–Asia, which hosts the Shangri La event,  “Since taking office, Prime Minister Kishida has been an energetic diplomatic leader, engaging with partners in Asia, Europe and North America.”

Crabtree noted three dynamics that Kishida’s address tomorrow will likely touch upon: “Japan’s changing strategic outlook, the regional repercussions of the war in Ukraine, and the best way to manage the Asia-Pacific’s many pressing security challenges.”

Those security challenges almost certainly include China’s rapidly increasing military strength and regional assertiveness.

In May, Tokyo’s defense minister noted that Chinese carrier Liaoning’s air group had conducted over 100 sorties some 160 kilometers off an island in the Okinawan archipelago – the closest such drills Chinese forces have ever conducted to Japan.

Another threat is North Korea, currently engaged in a series of missile tests, and expected in some quarters to soon conduct yet another nuclear weapons test, which would be its seventh.

Outside the region, Moscow’s assault on Ukraine has led to widespread fears – so far, unfounded – that it could presage a Chinese assault on Taiwan. “Ukraine may be East Asia tomorrow,” warned Kishida in London in May. “Collaboration among countries sharing universal values becomes ever more vital.”

Fears of a possible Chinese invasion of Japan have been amplified by media.

“This gets reported in Japanese news – not specialist TV, but news shows – that have extended segments on Taiwan: How would the Chinese physically go about it, would Japan be drawn in,” said Lance Gatling, the Japan-based head of Nexial Research Defense and Aerospace Consultants.

“Since the Biden administration came in, the Japanese have become very aware that what they took for granted under previous administrations might be at risk – they are erratic,” Gatling told Asia Times. “They have given all these arms to Ukraine, but there is supposed to be an increased focus on Asia. It is ugly all round.”

Pressure rising in Japan

Faced with these perceived threats, one Japanese academic says Kishida is neither a hawk nor a dove but a politician blown by political winds that cannot be ignored.

“He is your typical LDP guy, he is not a dove or a hawk, he will do what is necessary, and given what is happening now, it is necessary to put some pressure on China so they will not underestimate us,” Haruko Satoh, an expert on regional relations at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, told Asia Times.

“I think this is the moment when, if the Japanese prime minister for dovish reasons did not do anything, it would be odd,” she said.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

Kishida has backed the Western stance on Russia – where, in terms of public perception, he may be pushing on an open door. According to an April poll by the Asahi newspaper, 88% of the public approved of his accusation that Russia was committing war crimes in Ukraine.

Certainly, there are domestic political pressures. The Mainichi alleged that Kishida’s defense spending plan is a result of “pressure from former prime minister Shinzo Abe and other ruling party figures.”

Since leaving office, Abe and several associates have been publicly agitating for Japan to adopt a clear stance on the defense of Taiwan, an issue magnified by the Ukraine conflict.

Under Abe, the constitution was reinterpreted to grant Japan’s Self Defense Forces wider leeway. Japan also expanded its armory of expeditionary assets, ranging from converting helicopter destroyers to light aircraft carriers and standing up a force of marines, while Abe was in power.  

Now, “Abe is being very, very noisy trying to challenge and undermine Kishida,” said Satoh. 

With Upper House elections upcoming, likely to be held on July 10, Kishida and Abe need to bury any hatchets in their party’s electoral interest. But regardless of internal machinations, the shifting geopolitical realities surrounding Japan mean that Kishida is unlikely to change course.

His country’s heavy reliance upon seaborne energy imports, China’s rise as a naval power in the East and South China Seas and Russia’s storm upon Ukraine are all galvanizing issues, reckons one expert.

“I think the average Japanese is much more attuned to these issues than the average American or European,” said Gatling.

“This is what I expected 20 years ago,” he said, referring to the current security consciousness. “The Russia-Ukraine war has energized some folks who say, ‘Now we can no longer kick this can down the road.’”

Follow this writer on Twitter at @ASalmonSeoul