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A New Dawn for the Rising Sun



The Japanese government recently approved a steep increase in the defense budget for the year 2024, marking the second stage of its planned quinquennial effort to rapidly bolster the country’s defense capabilities. The initiative was announced in December 2022 by Fumio Kishida’s cabinet through the adoption of three new strategic documents redefining Japan’s national interests in the light of the growing concerns about regional tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Whether this new posture is a substantial departure from earlier Japanese defense doctrines is made clear by the radical political and financial investment of the government in distancing itself from the anti-militarist dogma of most post-war administrations. Its effectiveness, instead, both material and strategic, is far from assured.

Traditions of strategic “freeriding”

The history of post-war Japan has been marked by the international label of "abnormality" placed upon it due to its foreign and defense policies revolving around a passive-pacifist approach and the complementary commitment to consistently allocate low shares of a booming GDP to military expenditure, leading the country to heavily rely on US forces for its own security.

The framework for these norms was the Yoshida Doctrine, named after Japan's first post-war Prime Minister, Shigeru Yoshida. It emphasized economic growth and development as priorities over military expansion, instructing to avoid any involvement in international security issues. This doctrine and its subsequent, more proactive, declinations dominated the country's policies for decades, setting a 1%-of-GDP ceiling to yearly military budgets that has only been formally contested from 2017 onwards, when former PM Shinzo Abe announced that the standard would no longer be upheld.

As a matter of fact, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which have gradually become a de facto Japanese “army”, were historically limited since their inception by the Constitution to only engage in the protection of the country's own territory from external threats and to not possess offensive capabilities. Notably, this defense policy has been complemented by a substantial reliance on US contingents and military bases strategically stationed on Japanese soil in accordance with the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1951 and with its revised version signed in 1960.

Although changing scenarios in the last 75 years have led various Japanese administrations to pursue more proactive roles in international security and to push for reinterpretations of constitutional constraints to the SDF’s deployment abroad and to military spending, a shift that was encouraged over time under American gaiatsu (“foreign pressure”), Japan has maintained its reputation as an unreliable “middle-power” within the Western coalition on issues of multilateral military action, limiting its assistance during international peacekeeping missions to practices of “checkbook diplomacy” (financial aid), logistical support or humanitarian-reconstruction operations.


The Revised strategy

Just two years ago, in December 2022, PM Fumio Kishida’s cabinet unveiled three new strategic documents that garnered international mainstream media coverage: the new National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Buildup Program.

An earlier iteration of the NSS (National Security Strategy) was published by the Japanese MoD only as recently as 2013, under Abe's administration. At the time, it marked the first step towards a "comprehensive and integrated approach to national security" and a concurrent reevaluation of the country's inadequate posture in the realm of international collective defense, but the new approach introduced by its recent revision, even accompanied by the two supplementary documents, underscores a much greater commitment to these objectives.

This late response from Japan to shifting regional dynamics comes at a time of growing domestic consensus supporting an upgrade of current defense capabilities. Recent years have, in fact, witnessed the intensification of missile development and activity in the region, compounded by rising tensions in the South China Sea and by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both perceived as threats to the rules-based order endorsed by Japan.
Moreover, following a series of missile test launches from North Korea — notably the one that traversed Japanese skies in October 2022, forcing the evacuation of citizens in the Hokkaido Island and Aomori city among others — the populace’s inclination to welcome military budget reforms increased further. The official translation of the latest NSS clearly expresses these concerns and reads: “Missile attacks against Japan have become a palpable threat”. Hence, it is not unreasonable to find that the negative public response to the new policy stance mainly came in the form of protests against the proposed increase in tax burden to finance the program.

The new NSS also explicitly establishes the necessity for Japan to make substantial investments in the renovation of its security apparatus. The plan is to almost double defense expenditure, reaching an unprecedented historical peak (in post-war Japan) of a 2% military burden before the end of 2027. This translates to a total of 43 trillion JPY (about 292 billion USD in January 2024) spent on the “fundamental reinforcement of defense capabilities and complementary initiatives”.

The important change in paradigm, however, is only partly due to this surprising investment, while it has been mainly characterized by the introduction of counterstrike capabilities, notably through the purchase of around 500 American Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles, which “in cases where armed attack against Japan has occurred, and as part of that attack ballistic missiles and other means have been used, […] (will) enable Japan to mount effective counterstrikes against the opponent’s territory”. Keeping in mind Japan’s complex cultural-legal relationship in the last 70+ years with everything deemed “militarily offensive” is crucial when evaluating similar official statements from the Japanese government.


The acquisition of long-range counterstrike capabilities by Japan primarily aims at deterring foreign missile attacks, leveraging the threat of targeting and neutralizing airfields and military port facilities located on enemy soil. In the event of a Taiwan contingency, an increasingly tangible scenario, China may exert military pressure on Japan to adopt a neutral stance on the issue under threat of missile strikes on US or SDF bases within Japanese territory. Confronted with this prospect, Japan's possession of long-range counterstrike equipment functions to undermine the credibility of China's intimidation tactics by reducing its first-strike incentive, in alignment with the “active denial strategy” proposed by US researchers Heginbotham and Samuels at MIT.

Given that conventional denial deterrence necessitates a high level of military resilience and mobility to withstand attacks and weaken an encroaching adversary, Japan's decision to expand the number of landing crafts and transport helicopters, aiming to facilitate the swift deployment of SDF troops and supplies in the nation's southwestern islands, disputed with China, is a remarkable initiative.

This capability build-up, however, does not imply the Japanese pursuit of strategic independence from the United States. Instead, it signifies a strategic alignment aimed at enhancing the efficiency of cooperative defense efforts between the two countries as, according to Prof. Satoru Mori from Keio University, bolstering Japan’s self-defense will contribute to a more effective 'theater division of labor,' enabling the United States to concentrate forces on the protection of Taiwan.

Returning one last time to the content of the new strategic documents, the government aspires to equip Japan with a defense arsenal characterized by a “synergy of organically integrated capabilities in space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic domains as well as in ground, maritime and air”. This vision appropriately pushes for a substantive upgrade of the SDF’s capabilities in alignment with emerging global military trends, seeking to propel domestically the active technological development in the new frontiers of warfare.


Efficacy and the electoral dilemma

However extraordinary these recent developments in Japanese military effort may appear, their effectiveness and feasibility must be grimly evaluated through a careful scrutiny of the challenges or shortcomings standing in the way of a successful military build-up program.

As Prof. Jeffrey Hornung argues, “when adversaries have fairly robust missile defense systems and hundreds of bases in which to disperse” Japan’s planned expansion of both quantity and assortment of counterstrike missiles may not constitute an effective strategy, as the scenario would require to prioritize one of the two dimensions of the increase.

Furthermore, Kishida’s government may be overly optimistic about the timing and the general practicability of introducing certain cutting-edge innovations into the SDF’s arsenal. Both the 2022 strategic documents and the defense budget for FY 2024, in fact, highlight the drastic increase of unmanned platforms across all domains, the acquisition of space domain awareness to deploy an entire satellite constellation for HGV detection and tracking, the establishment of unified cyber security measures based on an integrated SDF cloud computing system, and the utilization of AI for information warfare and analysis functions, alongside its use in unmanned aircrafts for combat support roles. Quoting Prof. Hornung: “in addition to the time it will take to develop/procure/deploy them, creating the concepts and doctrines necessary to integrate these assets into the existing force is likely to take years”.

When evaluating the MoD’s ambitious goals, concerns are raised about whether the current industrial base is adequately equipped for the task at hand. In fact, the budget request includes items for which Japan's defense industry questionably possesses the required capabilities. Faced with uncertainties regarding both industrial capability and capacity, the Japanese government may find itself compelled to resort to foreign purchases or partnerships. However, the depreciation of the yen poses the challenge of increased import costs, thus potentially undermining the effectiveness of Japan's envisioned defense build-up.

Last but not least, the financial challenge of the program has become more critical than ever. The decision on whether to raise taxes to fund the increased defense budget has been deferred until after the October 2025 elections. The Liberal Democratic Party (the major party in the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Kishida) is currently grappling with what is considered its most significant popularity crisis in decades. This follows consecutive scandals, including alleged influence from the conservative Unification Church on party members and accusations of undisclosed excess funds from fundraiser events being pocketed by LDP politicians.


With a 26% approval rate as of January 2024, the task of forming a new and stable government led by Kishida appears arduous. This scenario poses a discontinuity threat to the commitment to increased budget allocations for defense, especially when the time to set new tax rates will come for the newly elected legislature.


Navigating uncertainty

Japan's transformative decision underscores that it is imperative for policymakers to navigate the delicate balance between national security imperatives, financial sustainability, strategic implications and public sentiment. The successful implementation of the new defense strategy hinges upon Japan's ability to address regional challenges effectively while fostering stability in the Indo-Pacific and upholding international norms.

It remains to be seen whether Japan will be able to successfully emerge as a stronger and more resilient actor on the global stage, or if it will face setbacks undermining its ambitious goals.



Footnotes:

(1) Liang, X., & Tian, N. (2023, February 2). The proposed hike in Japan's military expenditure. SIPRI. https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2023/proposed-hike-japans-military-expenditure


 (2) Osti, D. (2014). Italy and Japan as Security Actors: Still Free Riding on the US? In S. Beretta, A. Berkofsky, & F. Rugge (Eds.), Italy and Japan: How Similar Are They? A Comparative Analysis of Politics, Economics, and International Relations (pp. 329-348). Springer Milan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-88-470-2568-4_19


(3) Wright, J. (2022, July 12). Japan's Self-Imposed One Percent: Does It Really Matter? Air University (United States Air Force). https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/3089775/japans-self-imposed-one-percent-does-it-really-matter/


(4) National Security Strategy of Japan. (2022, December 16). Japanese Ministry of Defense. https://www.mod.go.jp/j/approach/agenda/guideline/pdf/security_strategy_en.pdf


(5)  National Defense Strategy of Japan. (2022, December 16). Japanese Ministry of Defense. https://www.mod.go.jp/j/approach/agenda/guideline/strategy/pdf/strategy_en.pdf


(6) Defense Buildup Program. (2022, December 16). Japanese Ministry of Defense. https://www.mod.go.jp/j/approach/agenda/guideline/plan/pdf/program_en.pdf


(7) Tsuneo, W. (2023, February 13). What's New in Japan's Three Strategic Documents. CSIS. https://www.csis.org/analysis/whats-new-japans-three-strategic-documents


(8)   Heginbotham, E., & Samuels, R. J. (2018, Spring). Active Denial: Redesigning Japan's Response to China's Military Challenge. International Security, 42(4), 128–169. https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00313


(9)  Danforth, N. (2023, November 20). Japan Re-evaluates Regional Threats. In War on the Rocks Podcast. https://warontherocks.com/2023/11/japan-re-evaluates-regional-threats/


(10)  Hornung, J. W. (2023, October 31). Japan’s Play for Today: Too Much? Just Right? Or Never Enough? War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2023/10/japans-play-for-today-too-much-just-right-or-never-enough/


(11)  McCurry, J. (2023, January 10). How Shinzo Abe's murder and his ties to Moonies blindsided Japanese politics. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/10/how-shinzo-abe-ties-to-moonies-unification-church-blindsided-japanese-politics


(12) Takahara, K. (2023, December 13). Focus turns to replacements as scandal-hit LDP ministers face ax. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/12/13/japan/politics/kishida-matsuno-replacement/


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