Japan plans to remilitarize at lightning speed

Tokyo publishes formal plan to double defense spending by 2028 including outlays for new counterstrike capabilities aimed at China.

SEOUL – It’s official: Tokyo will beef up its Self-Defense Forces with long-range missiles and double its defense spending by 2028.

These aims were formally laid out in the National Security Strategy, a document that was released today (December 16), after its first cabinet-level revision in almost a decade. While the new NSS’ publication marks a significant shift in Japan’s customary defensive posture, the news is not a surprise.

The Kishida government’s ambition to procure a “counterstrike” capability had been openly signaled and widely debated in the ruling alliance, which comprises Kishida’s right-wing Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the Buddhist-based Komeito, well before today’s announcement.

Though the main opposition may be against the shift, the ruling alliance controls both houses of the Diet, and moreover, has the backing of two defense-centric minority right-wing parties. Recent public opinion polls also show support for a firmer defense posture, with some two-thirds of Japanese in favor.

Today’s announcement, which was swiftly lambasted by Beijing and applauded by Washington, fits into a wider trend.

Japan has been quietly arming up with the kind of over-the-horizon assets – such as a marine brigade and two light aircraft carriers – that it has not possessed since World War II, following the “reinterpretation” of its war-renouncing constitution in 2014.

New muscle added

Regardless of the pacifism built into Japan’s constitution, the updated NSS, as reported by Kyodo News Agency, states that the country needs to have the ability to “make effective counterstrikes in an opponent’s territory as a bare minimum self-defense measure.”

The capability is not expected to be in place before 2026. It looks set to be a combination of extending the range of extant Japanese missile stocks and the purchase of new stocks of US Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of some 1,600 kilometers. Currently, the Tomahawk is deployed only by US and UK forces.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rides on a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Type 10 tank during a review at JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on November 27, 2021. Photo: JiJi

Targets on “opponent’s territory” are widely assumed to mean missile launch sites, and probably also command and control nodes. As for the actual territories that could be targeted, the NSS makes explicit reference to three potential “opponents.”

Per his presentations and comments at multiple fora, Kishida has been notably unnerved by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The NSS, which was last updated in 2013, refers to Russia as a “grave security concern.”

But invasive Russia is not the only nation in Japan’s to-be-acquired gunsights. China, which is continually building up its military forces in all domains, most notably its three-carrier navy, is identified as the “greatest strategic challenge.” North Korea, currently engaged in its busiest year ever for missile tests, is seen as a “graver, more imminent threat than before.”

According to Kyodo’s report on the document, Tokyo could use the new capability to launch a strike under three conditions: if Japan is attacked, or an attack on a friendly nation threatens Japan’s survival; if there are no appropriate means to repel an attack; and as long as any use of force is kept to a minimum.

Gray areas, big questions

The language pertaining to the use of domestic weapons if a “friendly nation” comes under an attack that “threatens Japan’s survival” is particularly tricky, with the phrasing likely to tie both domestic interpreters of the doctrine and foreign geopolitical pundits into knots.

It seems unlikely that any attack on Taiwan or South Korea would threaten Japan’s existence. However, with Tokyo heavily reliant upon its security alliance with Washington, if US forces were drawn into related combat and faced possible defeat, serious questions would need to be urgently raised in Japan’s corridors of power.

Meanwhile, as previously reported by Asia Times, questions hang over this proposed capability. One: Does Japan possess the full range of collateral assets – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – necessary to enable its efficacy?

Two: If this is truly a sovereign-independent capability, how will it be integrated with US command and control systems and related assets in and around Japan? Three: How effective are high-explosive missile warheads as a deterrent given that China, North Korea and Russia are all nuclear-capable?

China was fast to respond to today’s news, with officialdom addressing the NSS’s revision within hours of the information being released.

Japan, “ignores facts, deviates from its commitment to China-Japan relations” and “groundlessly discredits” China, a Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. He accused Tokyo of “hyping up the ‘China threat’” as an excuse for a military buildup.

Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ship JS Hyuga direct a US Marines MV-22 Osprey to land during the Dawn Blitz 2015 exercise off the coast of Southern California. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston

The reaction from Washington, which has encouraged and welcomed increases in its allies’ defense spending, was predictably positive and equally swift.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan praised the new NSS as “historic,” saying in a message posted by the White House: “The strategy sets forth the vision of Prime Minister Kishida and the Japanese people for a broad and strong community of partners and allies in support of peace and stability in the region.”

“Japan’s goal to significantly increase defense investments will also strengthen and modernize the US-Japan alliance,” he stated.

Show me the yen

Questions already hang over the program’s funding, as well as the wider planned rise in the national defense budget.

The NSS allocates about 43 trillion yen ($315 billion) for defense budgets over five years from next year. On that spending schedule, 2% of GDP would be spent on defense by fiscal year 2027, which ends in March 2028.

If the target of 2% of GDP target for defense spending is, indeed, achieved, it would make Japan the world’s third largest spender on its armed forces in the world, behind only the US and China, according to a June report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

The world’s third-largest economy has traditionally capped defense spending at 1% of GDP.

The yen is down massively against the US dollar in 2022, reducing Tokyo’s spending power on global arms markets. Image: Facebook

Today, Japan’s ruling parties endorsed a plan to raise taxes to finance the massive rise in defense spending but postponed deciding when to do so due to turmoil caused by Kishida’s abrupt floating of the idea.

Kishida reportedly favors a new defense tax and a rise in corporate and tobacco taxes, but some Diet members, including cabinet members, have pushed back, suggesting instead bond issuances.

LDP members have called for in-depth discussions on the funding issue to be held early next year.

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