Japan is boosting its defense in anticipation of potential opponents in the region, via the modernization of its air and naval forces.
Suga Pledges to Continue Abe’s National-Conservative Agenda
When Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office in mid-September, he pledged to continue his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s national-conservative agenda. In particular this applies to Abe’s long pursued strengthening of the Japanese military. Accordingly, Japan’s defense spending will increase for the ninth year in a row, by 1.1 percent to a new record of 42.4 billion euros, resulting in five percent of overall government spending.
The focus of the new budget is on modernizing weapons systems in order to increase the country’s deterrence against its adversaries in the region such as North Korea. Approximately 266 million euros are allocated towards new missile systems, which will take five years to fully deploy and are supposed to keep enemy warships at bay via an increased range of truck-mounted missile systems located in Okinawa.
Details of Japan’s Military Hardware Upgrade
Japan is willing to invest generously in the modernization of its weaponry arsenal. The research and development of next-generation combat aircraft will cost the government 580 million euros. Six Lockheed F-35 stealth bombers will be built for a total of 515 million euros. Manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy — one of the world’s largest defense contractors — will have its hands full.
At the same time, Japan is preparing the construction of two compact destroyers, which will strengthen the sea-based defense system against missiles from North Korea. In 2021, 13.5 million euros will initially be invested here. But by their completion in 2025, the two ships will cost over four billion euros. The destroyers are intended to replace the planned land-based Aegis defense system that Abe’s previous government abandoned in the summer — officially for cost reasons. The new destroyers will receive a more powerful radar system with a range three times greater than their predecessors.
However, the upgrades and developments of new weapon systems also enliven the age-old debate in Japan regarding whether the pacifist constitution allows the use of long-range missiles. As early as 1956, politicians and constitutional lawyers discussed the legality of Japanese rocket attacks on other countries for preventive defense. Today’s scenario would be that Japan would destroy a North Korean missile on its launch site if North Korea plans an attack on Japan.
The risk here is apparent: if Japan were to misjudge such a threat, it would likely start a war, not defending itself against an attack.
Japanese possession of medium and long-range missiles could influence the established division of labor with its security partner, the US. So far, the cooperation has been based on the “shield and sword” principle. The Japanese act as the defensive shield, while the 55,000 US soldiers stationed in Japan wield the “sword” against the enemy. But that paradigm had worn out over many years, particularly as of late, when Japan started to doubt Washington’s unconditional support under President Donald Trump. It initiated a change in its modus operandi and began seeking a more independent defense approach.
Hence, Japan is entering new legal and military territory in order to be able to defend itself against attack more effectively. A joint military maneuver between the Japanese, France, and the US in May is thus not surprising and likely only the beginning of a more active Japanese military.
In addition, a debate whether or not Japan should become a member of “Five Eyes”, the intelligence alliance of the US, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, continues to persist. The Japanese government has neither confirmed nor denied the potential cooperation with “Five Eyes,” as it needs to consider its relationship with China.
Nonetheless, Japan is likely to continue its “peace through strength” approach in the region and the new defense budget is a testimony of exactly this.