Why Japan’s defence budget pledge is good for Britain

Kishida Fumio, Japan’s new Prime Minister, came to power this week on a pledge to double defence spending. As the world’s third biggest economy, generating around ¥550.6 trillion (US$5.2 trillion) per year, the roughly 1% of national income Japan spends on defence annually is no small amount. The Japanese Ministry of Defence submitted a budget request for 2022 of ¥5.7 trillion – equivalent to US$50 billion (compared with the United Kingdom’s (UK) US$72.8 billion). 

Not all manifesto pledges are promptly put into action, and some not at all. But a commitment to doubling Japan’s defence spending is nevertheless a very significant development in several respects. It would mean that Japan would end up spending in excess of US$100 billion per year.

Primarily, regardless of when or whether it happens, the fact that the ruling party felt safe to make the pledge – and the fact that the Japanese people supported it – suggests a growing popular acceptance of the need to invest in a stronger defence. 

Japan’s commitment to cap defence spending at just 1% of national income came from the 1970s, out of a mixture of anti-militarist sentiment, and a desire to shield other domestic spending priorities. Since then, the Komei Party (Komeito) that has been a coalition partner of Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for several administrations, had objected to the LDP’s pledge to raise defence spending.

Ahead of the election, Komeito warned that the Japanese public would not support such an increase. It has now been overtaken by the more right-wing Ishin Party, which captured 42 seats to Komeito’s 32. Similarly, the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) had called in September for the abolition of ‘unconstitutional parts’ of security legislation passed by the LDP. But the CDP performed so poorly in the elections that Yukio Edano, its leader, announced he would quit.   

This shift in the public mood is entirely reasonable considering objective changes in the strategic situation surrounding Japan in recent years. Pressure to upgrade Japan’s defence capacity is coming from several directions:

  1. The military modernisation of the neighbouring People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is encroaching more firmly on Japanese territory and maritime communication lines in an effort to intimidate Taiwan. This explains why Kishi Nobuo, Japan’s Minister of Defence, recently expressed his intention to strengthen Japanese capabilities on the southern islands close to Taiwan, and to add a third unit to the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, based in Sasebo, Nagasaki. As Kishi also told Nikkei Asia: ‘We will strengthen new areas such as space, cyber and electromagnetic warfare.’ He went on: ‘Technological innovation is advancing at a tremendous pace and the nature of fighting is changing.’
  1. The PRC has started to work more closely with Russia, a country Japan has strained relations with. On 18th October a flotilla of ten naval vessels from Russia and the PRC sailed through the strait separating Japan’s main island (Honshu) from Hokkaido, around the East coast of Japan, then back through the Tsushima strait between Honshu and Kyushu and into the Japan Sea.
  1. The arms race on the Korean Peninsula includes nuclear weapons and advances in missile technologies that make interception more difficult. Japan is therefore being pushed towards other – not inexpensive – methods to strike missiles before they can be launched. Advanced technology to do this using long range strike capabilities but also electromagnetic waves and satellites will be costly to develop, as well as politically challenging.
  1. A final factor is the need for Japan to be equipped to respond to challenges firmly without waiting for the United States (US) to make the first move. While the US is legally bound under the US-Japan Security Treaty to defend Japan, the perennial question of whether Washington would be willing to escalate a conflict with the PRC over barren rocks in the East China Sea remains salient, especially at a moment when the Chinese are reported to be developing hypersonic missiles capable of striking the US homeland.

From the perspective of ‘Global Britain’, a militarily stronger and more capable Japan should be welcomed. The UK and Japan already consider one another as each other’s ‘closest security partners respectively in Asia and Europe’, as per the two countries’ 2017 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation – a point recently reaffirmed by Her Majesty’s (HM) Government as the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group visited Japan.

Indeed, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, met Kishida on 2nd November 2021 in Glasgow to congratulate him on his electoral success. According to a statement from 10 Downing Street, the leaders ‘discussed foreign policy and security issues, and agreed to deepen defence cooperation’. In the words of The Japan News, ‘Kishida and Johnson also agreed to seek the early conclusion of a bilateral reciprocal access agreement for the mutual acceptance of troops.’ It went on: ‘The two men met several times when they were both foreign ministers, and Johnson said he was glad to see Kishida, whom he called an old friend.’

At the national and personal levels, the quasi-alliance between the UK and Japan is already in good shape. Given the UK’s own uptick in defence spending and commitment to ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, a militarily more capable Japan can only strengthen it further.

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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