The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Japan is increasing military spending to historic levels thanks largely to China, North Korea, and Russia’s ill-conceived war in Ukraine.

The Second Sino-Japanese War lasted from 1937 until 1945. When Japan was finally defeated, China was on the winning side but lay in ruins. There had been approximately 15 million casualties, significant industrial infrastructure and agricultural production losses, and the nationalist government’s hesitant modernization efforts had all but been destroyed.

Fast forward 27 years to 1972, Japan and China signed an agreement to respect each other’s sovereignty, non-interference in internal matters, and peaceful coexistence. Despite that agreement and others, Japan’s optimism toward China has significantly decreased. More than 90% of Japanese have a negative opinion of China, a level not seen since 2005.

Because of concerns over Chinese expansionism including a possible invasion of Taiwan, and tensions with both Russia and North Korea, Japan has increased its military spending to $51.4 billion, which is a 20% rise.

Its new National Security Strategy seeks to give Japan a “counterstrike capability or the ability to hit enemy bases” so that it can foresee adversary strikes and defend itself against mounting threats from North Korea, Russia, and China. Tokyo will play a crucial role in the U.S.-led anti-China coalition by increasing integration with the G7 and NATO.

Since China has grown stronger and more confrontational, Japan has amplified the size and might of its military. The threat from China is of particular concern to Japan. More frequent Chinese military drills have taken place near territories claimed by Japan, often in collaboration with Russia.

Japan’s most immediate threat is China. However, given its proximity and the number of missile and nuclear tests conducted over the years, Japan’s National Security Strategy suggests North Korea poses a “more severe and immediate danger to Japan’s national security than ever before.” Similarly, due to its increased relations with China and the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is described as a “high-security concern.” The war in Ukraine has significantly influenced Tokyo’s decision to adopt a more assertive foreign policy.

Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan hasn’t shied away from enforcing economic sanctions on Moscow, compared to countries like Hungary and India. According to recent polls, the general public supports Japan’s recent hawkish turn. To challenge China, North Korea, and Russia, Japan has eagerly embraced the United States. According to Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, “Japan is much more eager to ally with the United States and other similar democracies to fight with those autocracies and antagonistic nuclear states.”

Analysts have been hesitant to acknowledge Japan as a global military power compared to the United States, the UK, or France. Thomas Wilkins, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations, has written that Japan, despite its increased military spending, is not yet a military superpower. “Japan is clearly not yet a global military power in the way that the United States, United Kingdom, or France are. The absence of offensive force projection capabilities such as strike aircraft carriers or long-range bombers and nuclear arms nominally disqualify it from this rank. Despite its expanding horizons, Japan’s global military footprint remains limited so it can only be considered an incomplete great power.”

China’s Global Times, a state-run news website, published an opinion piece in mid-January that echoed Beijing’s concerns about a more assertive Japan. “According to information disclosed by media, [talks between Kishida and Biden] will focus on issues including deepening defense cooperation, Japan’s plan to acquire intermediate-range and long-range missiles, and increasing the US deployment on Okinawa. A former US government official even blatantly said that the summit would to a large extent be aimed at containing China. The negative move by the US and Japan deviates from the international community’s desire for peace and development, and challenges the international order formed after World War II.”

In China’s view, increased tensions in the region are specifically the fault of Japan and the United States. Since China has undergone significant military modernization over the past few years, such comments come off as hypocritical but given China’s tendency to embrace victimhood this type of sentiment would be expected.

MD Obaidullah Siam holds a degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal, Bangladesh. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka. He regularly writes on the topics of Public Policy, Politics and Governance, Sustainable Development, and Climate Change.