Will Politics Kill Japan’s Plans to Boost Defense Spending?

Will Politics Kill Japan’s Plans to Boost Defense Spending?

Despite the changing tune in Europe, domestic factors may prevent Japan's government from investing properly in its defense.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has proposed a drastic adjustment to the country's defense budget, strategies, and policies in response to the security dynamics currently playing out in Europe and East Asia. If approved, the new budget would amount to 2 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP), putting the country in alignment with NATO’s defense spending standards, as well as with Washington’s longtime expectation for Japan to step up and play a more active role in sustaining the existing security structure in the region. 

The symbolism of Kishida’s move should not be glossed over, as it has the potential to immediately remove critical barriers that have historically prevented Japan from coping appropriately with its chronic security fragilities. Nevertheless, while breaking the budgetary ceiling problem would help align Japan’s security policy with its allies, it remains far from a done deal. Domestically, it will demand a great deal of political horse-trading to obtain parliamentary approval, and effort will be needed to secure buy-in from Japanese civil society, especially if the process requires Kishida to delve into the debate over Article IX, the provision in the Japanese constitution that prohibits a buildup of military forces in the country.

First, the abandonment of the 1 percent of GDP ceiling on Japanese defense spending removes one of the main sources of tension in the U.S.-Japan security partnership. The United States seldom shied away from pointing out that Japanese defense spending over the past decades has been disproportionately low. Since 1985, the United States has consistently reminded Japan that, for a state with such notable economic capabilities that is embroiled in a volatile geopolitical environment, the 1 percent rule was nothing short of a luxury. Given the tensions in the East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and the increasing instability with China in Southeast Asian waters, many in the Pentagon view this budget adjustment as a recognition of common sense that should have been made a long time ago. 

Among other factors, it was exactly the Japanese hesitancy to make such a move that led to the iconic moment when then-President Donald Trump asked Japan to pay four times more if it wanted to keep American troops on its soil. Ironically, the long-awaited Japanese defense budget increase is, in many ways, linked with Washington’s own budget limitations. Since 2014, Tokyo has expressed a concern with the United States' “tight fiscal situation,” which resulted in the Obama administration’s decision to reorient military resources toward the Indo-Pacific and relieve the country’s financial burden by drawing down American troops in Afghanistan. Now, in addition to the fiscal motivation, the new geopolitical reality thrust forth by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made Washington incapable of providing equal resources to its allies in Europe while continuing to support Japan as it holds the line against Beijing’s agenda in the East and South China seas.

Second, one should not play down the influence that Germany’s decision to increase military spending will have on Japan. More than a mere question of budget allocation, the 1 percent of GDP defense spending was always seen as a concrete manifestation of both nations' pacifism, standing as a social contract between the state and citizens who have whole-heartedly embraced a largely pacifist social identity since 1945. When Olaf Scholz publicly announced that Germany was prepared to pull its weight in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, he indirectly removed the same moral and political barriers that prevented Kishida’s predecessors from making the same move at home without facing fierce resistance from Japanese society. Indeed, Kishida and the LDP are now able to claim that they are not alone in this matter. This can be seen in then-State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kenji Wakamiya's confident affirmation that “we, too, must pursue the ideal form of national defense in the face of the harsh reality of the international situation.” 

In practical terms, the German defense budget increase also left Japan in an indefensible position when compared to other U.S. allies. As pointed out by a former Pentagon security specialist, from Europe to Oceania, allies like Australia, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom are all committing far more than 2 percent of their GDPs to defense, even though they don’t face the same level of threat as Japan. On top of that, South Korea, another important ally with similar geopolitical concerns as Japan, has traditionally dedicated the equivalent of 2.4 percent of its GDP to defense expenditures since 2000.

From a domestic perspective, the government still has two final barriers. First, Kishida still has a tough political battle ahead if he wants to get the defense guidelines and budgetary demands approved. That is the moment when the money will start talking. In a sober editorial, the Asahi Shimbun reminded the LDP’s cabinet that the new defense budget would be a hard sell given the country’s current fiscal conditions. It calls attention to the delicate state of the Japanese economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The editorial warned Kishida not to take the budget approval for granted, as he would have to explain where the funding to cover such a drastic increase in defense spending would come from. Kishida will have to convince the Japanese people of the necessity to spend three times more on defense than on social programs.

The carnage in Ukraine could provide momentum to remove the last barrier preventing Japan from fully addressing its security problems: the nation’s pacifist constitution. However, a recent poll indicates that while the Japanese people may have become receptive to a more flexible interpretation of Article IX, they remain largely unconvinced that any drastic constitutional changes are needed. Almost 60 percent think that the peace clause—the bedrock of the article and the constitution itself—must be left untouched, while provisions to better respond to emergencies should be put in place. Moreover, over 70 percent of respondents say the situation in Ukraine does not affect their views on key security and constitutional questions, such as the three non-nuclear principles, with diplomacy and the economy being more important matters than military and security questions. More importantly, almost 50 percent do not support the idea of providing the Japan Self-Defense Forces with the constitutional authority to attack enemy positions, a question that is at the core of the proposed national security strategy of which the budget is a part.

Since the administration of President Abe Shinzo, Japan has actively readjusted fundamental aspects of its foreign relations, rebalancing its position in its complex security environment. The rapprochement with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other ASEAN members has been positive in many respects. The new status of its relations with India in the context of the Indo-Pacific has been carefully crafted and well-conducted so far. Moreover, it has removed ambiguities regarding the importance of Taiwan for its security and has also played an enthusiastic role in the QUAD group. 

However, the long-delayed defense budget adjustment, aligning Tokyo not only with its own security problems but also with the expectations of its regional allies, has reached a critical point in the context of the Russian invasion. Kishida must seize the moment and ensure the approval of a new budget ceiling that will confer the nation a more comfortable position, principally when dealing with the thorny alliance with the United States. Only time will tell when or under what circumstances Japanese society would finally accept the revision of its pacifist constitution. Until then, Japanese leaders must make sure that any other barriers are removed, without the traditional hesitancy seen in such matters.

Moises de Souza is Assistant Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and International Relations at the School of Humanities, Language and Global Studies and Chair of the Northern England Policy Centre for the Asia Pacific (NEPCAP) at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Image: Reuters.