Japan is capable of real contributions to the balance of power in East Asia, but it chooses dependence on the United States. Despite having the world’s third-largest economy and territorial disputes with China, Japan continues to “cheap-ride” on U.S. security guarantees. Japan’s failure to invest in its own defense tips the regional balance of power in China’s favor and increases the demands on the United States to maintain the regional balance. This makes the likelihood of inadvertent conflict between the United States and China greater, strengthens arguments for the United States to abandon its ally, and increases the incentives for China to pursue fait accompli strategies against Japan’s outlying islands. Japan also worsens its own negotiating leverage with the United States where it has different priorities on common security challenges like resolving the North Korean abduction issue. Japan has taken steps to address its security challenges in recent years by increasing defense spending, removing legal barriers to defending allies, and leading efforts to resist Chinese influence in the region through the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. However, its efforts in these areas and domestic policy fall short of the challenges it faces and the regional balance of power continues to shift rapidly in China’s favor.
Among major U.S. allies, Japan spends the least on defense as a proportion of GDP, just 1 percent. While the 2021 defense budget increases spending to $52 billion, that represents only a 1.1 percent increase from 2020. It also remains less than a third of China’s military budget and half of what China spends as a proportion of its GDP. China’s budget increased by 6.6 percent to $178 billion in 2021. Japan has maintained minimal defense spending since the 1960s when the government embraced its status as a junior partner to the United States. The “Yoshida Doctrine,” as this strategy came to be known, helped facilitate Japan’s postwar economic miracle by minimizing its security costs. During the Cold War, this policy was sustainable. The Cold War superpowers focused primarily on the nuclear balance and the balance of power in Europe. However, China’s rise has placed Japan on the frontline of the twenty-first century’s great power competition. Increasing defense spending to 2 percent of GDP has political support in Japan and doing so would stifle calls from some in the United States to increase host nation support, which is deeply unpopular in Japan.
Japan’s constitutional commitment to a military armed only for self-defense has left it ill-equipped for its current security challenges. In 2014, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led a collective security reform that was highly touted internationally as a sign that Japan was an equal partner in its alliance with the United States. In reality, Japan maintains substantial constitutional justification for refusing to assist allies. The 2014 and 2015 reforms changed the interpretation of the constitution. However, it still only permits coming to the aid of an ally in cases of “existential crisis” and permits using only the “minimum necessary force,” which by Japanese law precludes deploying combat forces to another state’s land or sea territory. That makes it difficult to imagine Japan providing support in the event of some of the most likely conflict scenarios such as a South China Sea or Taiwan crisis.
Japan’s chosen military strategy and capabilities are inappropriate for preventing Chinese expansion and regional hegemony. China has taken a significant lead in theater missile systems that have led many experts to believe it holds an advantage in conflict scenarios over contested islands in the East China Sea. Security analysts have pointed out that low-cost investments in resilient infrastructure in coordination with the United States and a shift towards an active denial strategy could deter Chinese aggression by making it prohibitively costly. This strategy also avoids increasing the threat to the Chinese mainland and thus limits risks of escalation in a crisis. Japan has not committed to active denial, instead continuing to invest in long-range missiles capable of targeting China’s mainland. This attempt at a deterrence-by-punishment strategy has Japan playing to China’s strengths and faces constitutional challenges. The failure to commit to active denial wastes resources Japan cannot afford to waste.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick” may be a clichéd piece of advice, but it ought to be Japan’s operating philosophy as it approaches the second quarter of the twenty-first century. The leading voices in Japanese politics advocating for military reform have the unfortunate quality of being the most vitriolically nationalist. This unnecessarily increases risks of conflict. Nationalist elements of Japanese politics helped make the strategically irrelevant Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands a flashpoint for tensions with China. Attempts by Japan’s right-wing to erase Tokyo’s war crimes during World War II from textbooks and an essay by the Air Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff provide additional sources of unnecessary tension with China and South Korea. Japan’s leadership needs to resist domestic pressures to appeal to right-wing nationalism. Failing to do so creates hurdles for cooperation with South Korea and opportunities for Chinese officials to justify an aggressive posture towards Japan.
Japan faces another existential problem. Its aging and shrinking population has helped stagnate the economy and is causing challenges for military recruitment. It has primarily sought to increase birth rates by promoting gender equality in the workforce and supporting daycares, so women are better able to start families. However, only by changing its restrictive immigration policy can Japan avert drastic declines in the population. Addressing this issue head-on may be politically costly given the present attitudes of Japanese people, but the consequences of failing to do so will be devastating for Japan.
Japan is in a tough position. It has territorial disputes with the world’s premier rising power as it itself enters relative decline. However, it remains a highly advanced economy in a favorable geographic and strategic position, allied to the world’s foremost military superpower. In order to protect a status quo that it benefits from maintaining, Japan needs to invest more heavily in its own defense financially and politically. If it does not, it leaves itself vulnerable to a Chinese fait accompli invasion of its islands in the East China Sea and provides justification for U.S. leaders that are inclined to ask for greater host nation support or abandon Japan entirely. The United States can continue to be a valuable partner and a resource for Japan as it addresses its challenges, but Japan needs to demonstrate it has the political will to do so. For its own sake, Japan must end its time on the American cheap-ride and invest politically and financially in its own defense.
Samuel Leiter is a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This essay took first prize in the 2021 John Quincy Adams Society/The National Interest Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.