December 30, 2022
JAKARTA – The global media went into overdrive when news broke that the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had made various amendments to the National Security Strategy (NSS) for the first time in nine years.
In 2013, the NSS had affirmed that Russia and China were “strategic partners”. The latest NSS does not detract from that line but adds North Korea to the group. It did, however, refer to China as the most comprehensive “strategic challenge”.
Thus, the Japanese military strategy continues to evolve. From one based on some contemporary attempts to take a more flexible reading of the Pacifist constitution to allowing Japan to aid and abet the military efforts of the United States, Japan’s main security ally.
Yet coming to the assistance of the latter was what Japan did during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, under then-prime minister Kaifu Toshiki, albeit in the most strenuous manner when Japan was unwilling to perform such a role.
As it is, the new concept of deterrence is one guided by the doctrine of pre-emptive or counterattack. The NSS affirmed in uncategorical terms that Japan “faces the severest and most complicated national security environment since the end of the war”.
The NSS was referring to World War II. While the NSS did name China “the biggest strategic challenge” — before North Korea and Russia — Kishida averred the effort to ensuring peace, safety and stability for the country itself and international society. It is almost as if Japan was trying to enhance its own national security and that of the world too.
The act of naming three countries a “threat” may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such is the world of international relations. There is always an action-and-reaction dynamic that attends any acute security tensions, even though the NSS that Japan seeks to defend include the “Senkaku Islands”, which are claimed by China and Taiwan.
Yet, everyone knows Japan and Taiwan do have a close relationship. From here, one can see that the NSS is document that is willing to overlook any imperfections with a focus on what Tokyo deems to be the main challenges coming from Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.
As Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of international relations at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs noted, “One year ago, I couldn’t imagine that the Japanese people would support this kind of security initiative.”
Japan’s 2022 defense budget is 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product, or $54.1 billion. Japan is currently in ninth place for defense spending worldwide, with the US, China, India, the United Kingdom and Russia the top five spenders.
A 2 percent budget would rocket Japan’s defense spending to $108.2 billion and place it third behind the US and China. By comparison, US defense spending in 2021 was $801 billion, with some 25 percent going to payroll and retirement benefits.
By adopting a counter offensive military doctrine, Japan has triggered a seismic shift. Why? First and foremost, under the NSS, Japan’s defense spending through 2027 will increase to about 2 percent of its GDP to total some $320 billion, 1.6 times that of the current five-year total.
Second, Kishida said the new target set the NATO standard for defense spending, a budget increase that has been his policy priority since taking office in October 2021.
To be sure, since the 2 percent of GDP figure coincides with a long-term target set by Japan’s allies in the Western NATO military alliance in 2006, Japan remains squarely in the corner of the Group of Seven.
Any mention of Japan’s attachment to the Comprehensive Transpacific Agreement (CPTPP), the Regional Cooperation on Economic Cooperation (RCEP), the Group of 20 or ASEAN centrality is actually moot.
Third, while many NATO countries are still short of the target, Germany hopes to reach it in the next few years. The United Kingdom has surpassed it and is aiming to spend 3 percent of GDP on defense by 2030. What Japan is doing is consistent with the UK and other members of NATO in the future. The defense budget, however, does include the need to enhance the cybersecurity of Japan.
As and when these provisions are approved by the Japanese Diet, where the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito – the former’s coalition partner – jointly hold a majority, a new Japan seems ready to take shape. But is it really as simple as Prime Minister Kishida has said? In the view of the latter, cost cutting and an increase in taxes will make up for the doubling of Japan’s defense budget.
Yet the fact is, the answer is not clear. The path laid by Kishida is not without the headwinds. Up to 87 percent of the Japanese people who were polled by Kyodo affirmed that the explanation of Kishida had been “insufficient”.
Indeed, the new NSS budgetary demands are short of some $44 billion. Invariably, the administration of Kishida, which is already reeling from its inability to tame the cost of living in Japan, coupled with the ever-shrinking disposable value of the Japanese yen, has had to face 64.9 percent of the Japanese people who are against tax increases to make up for the shortfall for defense, including opposition from his own party.
Be that as it may, Japan wants to find a new mechanism to adjust to a new world of great power rivalry, especially between the US, China and Russia, indeed the whole of NATO against Russia.
As if this is not disconcerting enough, Japan has to contend with roguish nuclear neighbor North Korea. More than 50 missile tests have been undertaken in the last three months alone, with one of the missiles landing near Japanese waters.
The truth is every solution facing Kishida seems to have its own problem, as Japan is no longer a country capable of solving its public finances by adopting an easy monetary policy. For example, he pumped in $260 billion to revive the Japanese economy in November 2022.
Yet, Japanese consumer growth still contracted by 0.1 percent. Such problems come at a time when Japanese people are increasingly fearful and insecure of Japan’s status as a great power or developed economy that can continue to improve standards of living even among the shrinking pool of youth. If anything, Japan is the country that is greying at the fastest rate.
All in all, this makes for a difficult national security debate, where Kishida must know how to manage the dissenting voices in his own party and those of its coalition partner, not to mention the public and the opposition party.
The writer is CEO of the Centre of Pan Indo-Pacific Arena (strategicpipa.info).