Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to end all doubts about Japan’s international ambitions and reassert Japan’s status as a “first-tier nation.” To that end, the Abe government has adopted an aggressive domestic-policy agenda that seeks first to reenergize the Japanese economy, which will then serve as the foundation of a higher-profile international role. Abe’s confidence and focus have sparked criticism of and concern about Japan’s “remilitarization,” as well as increasing concerns that Japan and China are leading an East Asian arms race with potentially dangerous implications. The prospect of a remilitarized Japan is fantasy, as are fears about impending war in East Asia, even though the risk of miscalculation or an accidental clash is real.
Make no mistake: Abe wants to change Japan’s regional-security role. His government has passed legislation—a secrecy law, established a National Security Council—that will allow it to function better in a crisis. It has produced a National Security Strategy. It has reinterpreted the pacifist Constitution to allow the country to exercise the right of collective self-defense. It has revived discussions on the acquisition of offensive strike capabilities. Most significantly, it wants to revive pride and patriotism among the Japanese people.
But the fetters remain. Reinterpretation of the Constitution is subject to very limiting conditions. The public remains fundamentally hostile toward an activist foreign policy and profoundly suspicious of any role for the military. (Remember, Japan only has “Self-Defense Forces”; that may be linguistic legerdemain, but it is a sign of the mental hurdles the country faces before it can “remilitarize.”) A majority of Japanese oppose Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visits than support them; opinion polls consistently show that with the exception of environmental issues, few Japanese believe their country should play a regional role, and even fewer believe it should play a global role.
There are other, equally powerful, limits on Japan’s future defense capabilities. The first is the budget. The five-year plan put forth by Abe last year increased 2014 defense spending by 0.8 percent, and proposes annual 3 percent increases until 2018. The increases might total $9 billion if they are fully implemented—a 16 percent increase over today’s military budget. That hardly qualifies as remilitarization.
To put these proposed increases in context, Japanese defense expenditures rose just 30 percent over the past twenty-five years when adjusted for inflation. Japan actually decreased its defense spending slightly in 2013 (-0.2 percent), and since 2009, the budget has decreased 0.5 percent. China, by comparison, spent $171 billion on defense in 2013, and has averaged 7 percent increases over the past decade. South Korea spends 50 percent more on defense (per capita) than does Japan. When put in perspective, Abe’s proposed defense increases are actually restrained.
This restraint is even more pronounced when looking at the types of weapons the Japanese military is purchasing. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is already a powerful defensive maritime force, and few analysts see the planned expansion as being a real attempt to create a blue-water navy that can project power. In October 2013, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano , chief of staff at the JMSDF, emphasized capabilities such as minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy operations, and modernization of command and control as future key priorities. There are also substantial limitations on what Japan could purchase in the future. As Philippe De Koning and Phillip Lipscy point out, Japan’s personnel costs are so great that, “Japan's focus has shifted from acquisition to preservation, and maintenance costs have skyrocketed: at the end of the Cold War, maintenance spending was roughly 45 percent the size of procurement expenditures; it is now 150 percent.” In short, while the Japanese military is powerful, and defense of its islands is a priority, this is a far cry from being able to project power beyond its own islands.
Also, at this point, the defense budgets are merely a projected increase: the difference between what Abe wants and what Abe gets may be large. Increasing the defense budget depends on the state of the Japanese economy. Inflation can dissipate any rise in defense spending. And if the overall economy performs poorly, it will be difficult to muster resources to spend more on the military. The record thus far is mixed. The Bank of Japan is doing its best to end the country’s deflation, and prices are slowly rising (although the goal of 2 percent inflation remains beyond reach). The government continues to apply stimulus measures, but growth has been elusive. After the April 1 consumption tax hike, GDP fell 1.8 percent in the second quarter of 2014. Economists can explain the quarterly gyrations; more troubling is the “third arrow” of Abenomics , structural reform, for which there is little evidence of success. Proponents say it is too soon to judge the reform efforts, but there need to be positive signs soon or Japan will face the worst of all possible worlds: rising inflation, stagnant wages and rising government debt. In that world, Abe’s ambitions will be impossible to realize.