Japan Is Changing Its Approach to Defense (and to China)
July 2, 2021 Updated: July 3, 2021
A few weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with American President Joe Biden at the White House. It was Biden’s first meeting with another national leader, and it was no accident that he chose Japan. Both men saw it as a way to send Beijing a message. And their joint message was clear. The first and third largest economies in the world are committed to the open global trading system that Beijing is actively trying to deconstruct. Still more pointed was the unmistakable message that the long-standing military alliance between the United States and Japan remains strong and that it will serve America’s intention of remaining an economic, diplomatic, and military power in the Indo-Pacific region. There can be little doubt that China’s leadership paid close attention, though it is far from apparent that their response will change.
In some respects, Suga was circumspect. Like his long-serving predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Suga is aware of China’s economic importance, globally and specifically to Japan. Japanese industry was an early investor in China and at last measure had exposure there of about $120 billion. China is by far Japan’s largest trading partner. The two-way flow between the countries now exceeds $300 billion. This economic vulnerability keeps Tokyo reticent about offending Beijing. Japan was the only Asian country that refused to sign the U.N. condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uyghur and other minorities. Tokyo also refused to join the United States in condemning China’s security laws in Hong Kong. There was no public mention of either issue at the Biden-Suga meeting.
Otherwise, Suga used the opportunity to point to significant changes Japan is making to cope with the dangerous neighborhood in which it finds itself. North Korea has fired missiles into the Sea of Japan, while China routinely violates Japanese sovereignty and frequently challenges Japanese Coast Guard and navy ships around the islands Japan disputes with China, Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese. Suga used the White House opportunity to tie the island dispute to America’s obligation under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. He mentioned issues with China or North Korea no less than seven times in what, by diplomatic standards, was a very short summary of the meeting. President Biden did not openly acknowledge American obligations in the Sino-Japan island dispute, but both men stressed the need to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” amid what they described as serious “challenges” in the East and the South China Seas. Even references to Japanese-American economic and technological cooperation had a Beijing audience in mind when they stressed “secure supply chains.”
Beijing could also see that Japan has long since gone beyond talk (at the White House or anywhere else) and has begun actively to reconsider its long-held pacifism. Even before becoming prime minister, Suga had pushed for constitutional changes that would allow Japan’s armed forces to attack missile sites in other countries (read North Korea) if they appeared ready to launch a strike on Japan. He had also pushed to build up Japan’s military more generally. In Washington, Suga tied all these efforts, albeit obliquely, to the alliance with the United States.
This is a considerable change that will begin to alter Asia’s diplomatic and military equation. For decades until now and throughout China’s economic and military rise, Japan, though an economic power to be reckoned with, had little military relevance. It was effectively a ward to U.S. military power. America would protect it. It could do little to aid America. Japan’s constitution limited military spending to only 1.0 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), tiny compared to China and the United States, each of which spends more than 3.0 percent of their much larger GDPs on defense. Because the constitution stressed defense exclusively, it stood in the way of any Japanese effort to project power and held up the Ministry of Defense’s (MoD’s) intention to construct two aircraft carriers and possibly base Japanese ground forces outside the country. The constitution also forbids Japan from entering any mutual defense pact. Despite Japan’s long-term alliance with the United States, it cannot go to America’s aid if, for instance, a U.S. base in Asia were attacked.
Abe began to change all this. Under his leadership, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) began to receive much more substantial funding. Because of the pandemic, last year’s budget is misleading, but in 2019, the ministry got ¥5.3 trillion ($47 billion), 7.2 percent above the 2018 budgeted amount. A jump like that would be noteworthy in any country, but especially so in Japan, where heretofore defense spending grew by fractions of a percent a year. Five-year plans sustain this heightened level of spending and growth. The proposed allocation of these funds aims pointedly at North Korea and China.
Where North Korea is concerned, the emphasis is on “deterrence.” Japan has begun a major upgrade in the electronic warfare capability of its existing F-15 fighter jets. The MoD has also purchased six F-35A fighters from Lockheed Martin. New plans call for purchases of 147 of these advanced fighters over the next few years, well above the original plan to buy 42 of them. Also clearly aimed at the North Korean threat, the MoD budget calls for Japan to upgrade its airborne early warning capability and spend over ¥300 billion ($2.7 billion) to deploy two land-based Aegis missile defense systems (“Aegis Ashore”) and other U.S. manufactured missile interceptors.
Japan’s military also plans measures to counter China, at sea mostly. Of course, the F-15 upgrades and the new F-35s constitute something of an answer to China. More pointed are MoD plans to procure RQ-40 Global Hawk long-distance drones, fund research to develop a long-distance undersea unmanned surveillance device, and otherwise enhance naval heft by procuring more anti-air missile and anti-torpedo ammunition as well as more standoff missiles. Plans also call for the construction of a new submarine, aimed, in the words of MoD budget documents, at “detections, etc.” (The etcetera no doubt refers to offensive capabilities that might raise constitutional questions.) Japan also has plans to construct two new multipurpose, compact destroyers that can also sweep mines. They will bring the fleet escort force to a total of 54 vessels, a considerable upgrade from the past.
The MoD is looking for more general ways for Japan to project military power and stand on a par with its allies. It seeks to procure a tanker to support the navy at sea, a clear statement that Japanese naval planning has gone beyond coastal defense. The ministry also seeks two new C-2 transport aircraft and six more UH-X helicopters specifically aimed at rapid deployments as well as a training budget to ready Japanese ground forces for more distant deployments. The ministry also seeks to refit an existing helicopter carrier to serve the new F-35 fighters and then build a second carrier. In some interpretations, this clearly violates the self-defense strictures in Japan’s constitution, though the MoD has couched the requests in defensive terms. The ministry also seeks greater integration of Japanese command, control, and planning with allies, the United States, obviously, but also India, Australia, and ASEAN, in other words, those nations that are trying to check Chinese expansion.
Along these same lines, the MoD has embarked on a broad modernization effort. It has set aside funds to establish what in the United States might have named the cyber-defense command and to investigate the military uses of artificial intelligence (AI). The ministry has dedicated development funds to eventually install protections for Japan’s satellites, including an optical telescope to identify objects flying near them. It has further dedicated a not insignificant ¥2.7 billion ($24 million) to work with the United States on what it calls “deep space international awareness.” Not only do these efforts capture further needs, but the budget document emphasizes, they will also help cope with Japan’s long-prevailing low birth rate and the resulting shortfall in military-aged people. One other aspect of this effort is the ministry’s remarkably un-Japanese push to put more women into uniform.
It should be apparent that Japan is set to alter the security equation in the Western Pacific. If Suga manages to modify the pacifist constitution still further, as he no doubt plans, the change will occur at an accelerated pace. It will alter Washington’s calculations. Beijing surely will take note. How it responds, remains an open question.
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, the New York-based communications firm. His latest book is “Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live.”