From Pacifism to Realism: The Rearmament of Japan

In geopolitics, significant shifts sometimes get blurred behind more pressing events happening at the time. However, a fully armoured samurai warrior mounted on a charging steed was emblazoned on the cover of Japan’s defence white paper in 2021, and it was one such shift. This white paper symbolized a change on a very fundamental level in Japan’s national security philosophy. For the first time, the report links Taiwan directly to the security of Japan.

However, all this took time to happen. Since 2014, Shinzo Abe’s government has been trying to reinterpret Article 9 – The no war clause of the Japanese constitution. A shock to the system spurs the rapid change in the Japanese military mindset. It was Commodore Mathew Perry’s ships in July of 1853 and the Russo-Ukrainian war in February of 2022. The invasion would catalyze Japanese security fears and help galvanize public support for the reforms. Therefore, On December 23, 2022, the Fumio Kishida government approved 6.82 trillion yen ($51.4 billion) in defence spending in fiscal year 2023, starting in April, amid what it calls “the most severe and complex security environment since World War II”. This marks another impressive figure, continuing a streak of nine successive years of increases in Japan’s national defence budget under a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration. By December 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration released three new strategic documents: a new National Security Strategy, a National Defense Strategy, and a Defense Buildup Plan. Then, in January of 2023, he and his foreign and defence ministers travelled to Washington to meet their U.S. counterparts.

Along with other changes, Tokyo has announced the intention to increase defence spending by nearly 60 percent over five years, abandoning an informal budget cap of 1 percent of GDP implemented in the 1970s for political reasons. Just this alone marks an almost revolutionary shift from conventional.

What led to such a dramatic shift and rapid modernization efforts?

Japan is suffering from “geographical woes”. It is incredibly close to Russia, both the Koreas and China. It has a territorial dispute with all of them. It has minimal arable land and minimal energy and mineral resources. Japan was the world’s largest LNG and coal importer in 2022. It imports about 50- 60 per cent of its food. Therefore, Japan is exceptionally dependent on free maritime trade. The defence of its SLOCs became very important for Japan’s survival. An increasingly assertive and hostile PRC with the largest navy in the world is a significant threat to Japan. So, we see a lot of “free and open Indo-Pacific” in Japanese security white papers.

Similarly, in the recent white papers, Japan has tied its security with Taiwan’s. It would oppose any attempt to “unilaterally change the status quo by force,” which is pointed toward China. On the other hand, the nuclearization of North Korea, its increasing capability in developing ballistic missiles as well as the Russo-Ukrainian war, suggests that not only is naked aggression a genuine possibility in today’s globalized and integrated world but also that survival against a much larger neighbour depends on being well-defended and self-sufficient. As Kishida has said, “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.”

Is there a Deterrence Plan for Japan?

Japan has defined its three defence objectives in DOJ23. The first is shaping a security environment that will not tolerate unilateral change in the status quo. The second is to deter and respond if any such attempt happens, and the last is to protect Japanese territories against aggression. To realize these objectives, Tokyo’s strategy is based on three pillars.

  • Strengthen deterrence by expanding Japan’s defence capabilities.
  • Bolster the United States (U.S.)–Japan alliance.
  • Push for greater cooperation with other like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan has been closely observing the Russo-Ukrainian war, and just like China, it is drawing conclusions and lessons. Under the first point, over the first five years, i.e., by 2027, it wants to be capable of defeating any invasions on Japanese territory and, within ten years, defeat the invasion at “much earlier and further places”. Therefore, it wants to develop its standoff defence capabilities with the purchase of 500 Tomahawk block 4 or 5 Cruise missiles and extending the range of Type-12 AShM, Integrated air and missile defence capabilities with the help of systems like 2 Aegis BMD and PAC-3 MSE PATRIOT, enhancing its unmanned defensive and offensive capabilities.

Many of these acquisitions stench of lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War. Thus, it wants to develop “counterstrike capabilities” as a way of deterrence. This is a significant shift from the previous defensive strategy, based solely on shooting down incoming missiles. Between 2019 and 2023, 17.2 trillion yen was spent on these capabilities, which increased to 43.5 trillion yen for 2023-2027, an increase of 152.9 percent. Tokyo plans to increase defence spending to the NATO standard of 2% of GDP by 2027. The SDF plans to induct 147 F-35 fighter aircraft, Global Hawk surveillance drones, and V-22 helicopters from the United States. The JMSDF has secured 5.2 billion yen to continue modifying its two Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” – Kaga and Izumo into aircraft carriers capable of enabling Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter aircraft operations, along with an impressive lineup of Destroyers, minesweepers, and submarines it could indeed transform into one of the strongest navies in Asia by 2030. Apart from the ones listed above, JSDF is on a very ambitious procurement program, which would be far more effective than, say, the one followed by Germany. From drones to Hypersonic missiles, everything is on the table. The focus is on space, cyber warfare, electromagnetic, and intelligence-gathering capacity.

The United States is the most important ally of Japan. The culmination of the second and third points is that Tokyo knows it cannot counter these threats alone, especially the PLAN; therefore, allies and like-minded nations are a crucial part of this strategy. The MSDF will play a far more aggressive role than it did in the “containment” of the USSR. The U.S. is at the heart of this grand strategy and is reportedly quite happy with the decisions made in Tokyo.

(Saumyasingh Kshatriya is a postgraduate research scholar at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India. He has a keen interest in Indo-Pacific and East Asia.)

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