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Japan girds itself for the long game: 2022 defence white paper

‘The international community is currently facing its greatest trial since WWII.’ So begins Kishi Nobuo, the Japanese Minister of Defence, in the foreword to Japan’s 2022 defence white paper[↗]

Kishi begins with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, threading it together with Japan’s most direct threats – a People’s Republic of China (PRC) seeking to change the international status quo by force, as well as North Korea’s escalatory ballistic missile launches and expanding nuclear arsenal – by pointing out that these countries respectively are cooperating with or have defended the ‘aggressor nation’, Russia.

Japan’s strategy to respond to what Kishi calls a ‘new period of crisis in the twenty-first century’ essentially has two lines of action. One is to express solidarity through strengthening ties with like minded partners, principally the United States (US), Australia, India and some European nations. The other is by ‘bringing together Japan’s knowledge and technology and putting all its collective efforts into strengthening its national defence capabilities.’ 

This white paper arrives in a context where all three of the main documents pertaining to Japan’s national security (National Security Strategy, the National Defence Program Guidelines, and the Medium Term Defence Program) are up for review, but the government has already set out its position on one aspect: there will be a major increase in the defence budget[↗] over the coming years.

Given a situation in which the security environment around Japan is growing increasingly severe at an unprecedented pace, Japan needs to dramatically reinforce its defence capabilities. In order to do so, it has prepared the FY2022 [fiscal year 2022] annual budget and the FY2021 [fiscal year 2021] supplementary budget together as one integrated “Defence-Strengthening Acceleration Package”.

Following a convincing victory[↗] for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in recent upper house elections, the current leadership can use what it anticipates as ‘golden years[↗]’ (around three years free of the distraction of political campaigning) to reform defence and security policy. However, broad public and parliamentary support will still be needed to agree where the money for this major increase is to come from. The white paper plays its role in this process (to ‘further increase understanding of the environment surrounding Japan and the efforts of the MOD [Ministry of Defence] and the SDF [Self Defence Forces]’), by presenting a rationale based on three points:

First, Russian aggression against Ukraine signifies the danger of unilateral changes to the status quo by force that ‘should never be tolerated, as they shake the very foundation of the international order based on universal values’. Having drawn a parallel with the PRC’s attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the East and South China seas, the white paper notes that the PRC’s ‘ties with Russia, an aggressor nation, have deepened in recent years, with joint navigations and flights being conducted in the areas surrounding Japan by both Chinese and Russian vessels and aircraft.’ Likewise, the threat to Taiwan is framed in terms of universal interests:

The stability of the situation surrounding Taiwan is also critical for Japan’s security and must be closely monitored with a sense of urgency while cooperating with the international community, based on the recognition that changes to the status quo by coercion are globally shared challenges.

The second point is to show how Japan’s defence spending is far too low, measured against two scales. One scale is the spectacular rate of increase in the PRC’s military spending and capabilities over the past two decades. The other (See: Chart 1) contrasts it with the spending of Japan’s neighbours, allies and partners (overall and as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP)):

Chart 1: Japanese defence spending contrasted with that of neighbours, allies and partners
Source: Defence of Japan 2022[↗]

Japan has the lowest ratio of defence expenditures to GDP when compared to the G7 [Group of Seven] countries, Australia, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). In addition, Australia, the ROK, the UK [United Kingdom], France, and Germany all spend about two to three times as much on defence expenditure per person as Japan.

The third point, which addresses the question ‘why’ Japan needs to spend more but also ‘how’, is made by highlighting trends in military modernisation – in particular in the domains of space and the electromagnetic spectrum – and advances in missile and anti-missile technology. A high proportion of the white paper is related to ‘new domains and fields’ including cyber, electromagnetic, artificial intelligence, rail guns, and microwave weapons. This justifies a further increase in defence research and development (R&D) on top of what has already been done to increase R&D expenditure to ‘a record high’. 

A sense of urgency is injected into the narrative, captured in a seemingly small detail: a reference to Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo chairing a ‘defence strengthening acceleration council’. The message is that Japan finds itself in a situation in which ‘the security environment around Japan is growing increasingly severe at an unprecedented pace’. This theme of accelerating the reinforcement of defence capability is further developed in a chapter under the section on Japan’s security and defence policy. 

The feature of the white paper that is perhaps most relevant for the UK is what it terms ‘Strategic Promotion of Multi-Faceted and Multi-Layered Defence Cooperation’:

The United States, Japan’s ally, and Australia, India, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other European countries, Canada, and New Zealand, are countries that not only share fundamental values with Japan, but also have geographic and historical ties to the Indo-Pacific region. The MOD/SDF has been encouraging these countries to become more involved in the Indo-Pacific region while promoting defence cooperation and exchanges, so that greater impact can be achieved when working together as partners in the region than could be achieved through unilateral efforts by Japan.

This passage in the section on ‘security cooperation’ is accompanied by a photograph of Ben Wallace, the British Minister of Defence, with his Japanese counterpart, perhaps in acknowledgement of the progress in UK-Japan defence cooperation that has taken place of late, including in the area of defence industry cooperation[↗]. Joint UK-Japan development of sensor[↗] and propulsion[↗] systems in respective future fighter jet projects is rumoured[↗] to be heading towards a full merger[↗] of programs by the end of 2022. If this comes to fruition, it would represent a major strategic breakthrough for the UK-Japan ‘quasi alliance[↗]’. 

This line of effort is partly a reflection of the fact that Japan’s relations with most of its immediate neighbours – the PRC, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and now also Russia – are bad and getting worse. The relationship with South Korea has potential to improve, but Seoul’s response to the white paper provided a reminder of the obstacles that remain; the South Korean foreign ministry strongly protested[↗] against Japan’s repeated sovereignty claims against the ‘Dokdo’ islands, which it calls ‘an integral part of the Korean territory in terms of history, geography and international law’. 

In conclusion, Japan is poised to make a large investment – both in quality and quantity – in its own means for defence. This will be done, however, in a context where it seeks to build solidarity through ties to friends and allies beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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