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Is Japan breaking with pacifism to increase defense spending?

Facing multiple security challenges, Japan has begun exploring legislation to lift a spending cap on defense. The move reflects a new strategic reality but also risks antagonizing neighbors. Julian Ryall reports.

With the threat posed by North Korea not receding and longer-term concerns over the growing military might of China, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is supporting a proposal by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to do away with the current defense spending cap, which equals 1 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The 1 percent limit was never set in stone, but was proposed in the 1970s by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and adhered to by successive governments who did not want to give Japan's rivals any excuse to accuse the country of rebuilding its military.

Read more: Japan approves record draft defense budget amid North Korea threat

Abe, however, has long championed a change in attitude towards defense. This is likely to be reflected in new National Defense Program Guidelines, which are due to be completed by the end of the year, and an updated Medium-Term Defense Program.

Discussions on the content of the new documents are already well under way, with the LDP cautioning that the nation "faces its biggest crisis in the post-war period."

Japan Protest Shinzo Abes Verteidigungspolitik (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Jue)

Japanese protest against Abe's "collective self-defense" policy in 2014

A changing strategic reality 

"Defense spending informally capped at 1 percent was acceptable to conservatives back in the 1970s, but things have changed, both in terms of the security situation surrounding Japan and other nations' spending," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, adding that members of NATO have committed to devoting 2 percent of their GDP to defense.

"The imminent threat to Japan comes from North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and plenty of missiles capable of hitting targets in Japan, but the bigger danger is China," he told DW.

And while Beijing and Pyongyang will crank up the propaganda and claim that Tokyo is boosting its spending on the military as a precursor to another invasion of the Asian mainland, Shimada said any increase in outlays is likely to go on higher costs for a professional military and research and development of new military hardware.

Shimada noted that this is "not something that autocracies like China and North Korea have to worry about."

The relative small scale of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, he added, means that funds must be spent "very wisely" in order to provide the best security for the most appropriate price.

It is harder, however, to write off the acquisition of an aircraft carrier as a defensive move, he admits.

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An increase in naval capability?

The LDP's proposals also call for the Izumo, a naval vessel which was officially designated in 2013 as a helicopter destroyer, to be modified so that it is capable of launching fixed-wing aircraft, making it a fully fledged aircraft carrier.

Tokyo has previously resisted the temptation to deploy a carrier – widely seen as a power-projection platform with offensive capabilities – on the grounds that it would antagonize the neighbors. That policy appears to be a thing of the past.

"China already has one aircraft carrier at sea and is building at least two more," said Shimada. "And Japan is a maritime nation, surrounded by ocean, so it is only natural that we have an aircraft carrier to help protect the nation."

"It must also be remembered that every other country has offensive weapons and also that having offensive weapons does not mean there is offensive intent behind them."

Read more: Japan eyes aircraft carriers to counter North Korea, China

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, agrees that an aircraft carrier is not necessarily an indication of offensive intentions. While the nation's military has been trained for the last 73 years to operate within the strict confines of the pacifist Constitution, Nagy said that this would no change overnight.

"The regional pressures on Japan have evolved and become even more complicated, which is prompting this rethink on national security," he told DW. 

"There is the new potential for a confederation of sorts on the Korean Peninsula, with major security implications for Japan," he added.

Japan Helikopter-Träger Izumo (picture-alliance/Kyodo)

Japans "Izumo" helicopter carrier in 2015

China's 'assertive policy'

"Beijing is also demonstrating a very assertive policy in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and using a salami-slicing approach to reduce Japan's claims to the Senkaku Islands," said Nagy, referring to the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are presently controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

The Chinese navy continues to carry out frequent incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the islands, challenging Japan's claims to control the waters. In the future China could call for joint control of the territory, followed by a gradual increase of its own control.

"Japan's biggest concern has to be over the integrity of its outlying islands and it wants to make sure that the Self-Defense Forces are capable of defending its territory," he added.

Other proposals that have been put forward by different members of the party include the deployment of cruise missiles with the ability to strike targets in other countries as well as developing a stronger military presence in outer space and cyber technology.

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