Japan is Shedding its ‘Pacifist’ Label
In a once-unthinkable move, Japan has announced a $320 billion military growth plan, its largest since the Second World War. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s cabinet approved a major expansion of Japan’s military power, the largest since the creation of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954. The five-year plan includes the purchase of missiles capable of reaching China and aims to prepare the country for prolonged conflict.
This marks a significant shift in Japan’s traditionally pacifist stance and will make it the third-largest military spender in the world, behind the U.S. and China. The move comes amid increased tensions in the region and concerns over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The continued growth of Chinese military power coupled with a record number of North Korean missile launches in recent months, including over Japanese territory, has convinced Japan it needs to expand and strengthen its military.
The goal is to both enhance Japan’s ability to deter aggression and to ensure that its military is prepared for potential conflicts. Kishida has pledged to increase the portion of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to national security from the traditional 1% to 2%.
However, seeking to assuage critics both domestically and abroad, or those worried by the military buildup, Japan ruled out preemptive strikes, and emphasized it is committed to “an exclusively defence-oriented policy.”
Three documents were announced that will guide the military’s expansion. The first, a new National Security Strategy, presents Tokyo’s assessment of the threats arrayed against it and lays out the diplomatic, economic, technological, and military instruments it will employ to address them. Second, a ten-year national defense plan outlines the military enhancements required for the military to do its job. The third document, a five-year procurement plan, outlines the initial priorities for implementing the defense plan.
According to the documents, Japan aims to “maintain its sovereignty and independence, defend its territorial integrity, and secure the safety of life, person, and properties of its nationals. Japan will ensure its survival while maintaining its own peace and security grounded in freedom and democracy and preserving its rich culture and traditions.”
In an article by the Council on Foreign Relations, Sheila Smith notes that the most noteworthy aspect of Japan’s new security strategy is “the introduction of the long-range conventional strike option.” Smith writes that while the missiles it has used for coastal defenses have a limited range, around 125 miles, Japan now will be looking to introduce missiles that have a range of 1,000 miles. “These will likely be U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles until Japan is able to build new missiles on its own,” she suggests.
Smith also notes how a recent Yomiuri-Gallup poll found that 90% of Japanese respondents do not trust China, and 61% believe Beijing will invade Taiwan. This distrust is multi-faceted. There are several reasons why tensions exist between the two rivals. One reason is historical tensions between the two countries, stemming from events such as Japan’s invasion of China in the late 1930s and ongoing disputes over territory and resources. Additionally, there has been a significant amount of economic competition between the two countries in recent years, and there are also cultural and linguistic differences that contribute to the mistrust.
Japan is worried about North Korea because of the threat that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose to Japan. North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear tests and has launched missiles over Japanese territory in the past, raising concerns about the possibility of a nuclear attack. Japan is also concerned about the potential for North Korean missile tests that fall on its territory, which could cause significant damage and loss of life. Japan also worries about the possibility of the regime collapsing, which could lead to a massive influx of refugees and the potential for a power vacuum in the region. The possibility that North Korea may proliferate its nuclear technology to other countries or non-state actors is also a worrying factor.
Japan is also concerned about Russia first and foremost because of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Japan also has an ongoing dispute over the Northern Territories, a group of four islands located in the western Pacific Ocean that are currently controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan. The dispute over the ownership of these islands dates back to 1945, and Japan has sought to resolve the issue through diplomacy. Another reason is the potential for military expansion by Russia in the region, which could threaten Japan’s security. Japan also worries about the potential for Russian support of China and North Korea, which are both seen as potential threats to Japan’s security. Additionally, Japan is also concerned about economic competition and the potential impact on its energy security.
But Japan’s militarization could have a significant impact on the Asia-Pacific region. It could potentially lead to an arms race among other countries in the area, which could increase tensions and the likelihood of conflicts. It could also lead to a shift in the balance of power in the region, potentially undermining the stability that has been maintained by the current regional order. Additionally, Japan’s militarization could have the opposite effect and instead lead to increased tensions with its neighbors, particularly those who have historical grievances with Japan.
Likewise, Japan’s militarization could also have a significant impact on the global order. As one of the world’s largest economies and a key player in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s military expansion could lead to increased tensions and a potential realignment of alliances. It could also lead to an arms race and increased military spending around the world. This could potentially destabilize the region and have ripple effects on the global economy and security.
It remains to be seen what will happen on a larger scale and it depends on how Russia, China, and North Korea react. In the meantime, Japan is correct in understanding that it must work to strengthen its defenses as well as its ability to fight in a protracted war should the need arise.
And that need could potentially arise sooner than we think.