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Commentary: The LDP says it will double Japan’s defense spending. Can they?



Last week, the Liberal Democratic Party laid out its policy platform for the upcoming Lower House election.


National security was obviously among the topics included, and what ended up garnering the most headlines was the fact that the party declared its intent to boost defense spending to more than 2% of the country’s gross domestic product — a move that would effectively double its current defense budget.


While that point is attention grabbing, it is important to temper expectations and to glean the actual takeaways on Japanese security from the LDP’s policy pledges.


There are three reasons why:


The first is that upcoming elections — both the Lower House poll this month and the Upper House vote next summer — will restrain how far and how fast the LDP moves with its security policy designs. National defense is not an issue that brings Japan’s silent majority to the voting booths, but it can galvanize the vocal opposition. The LDP will be cautious in what it pushes, especially if the Kishida administration struggles to gain ground in areas the electorate cares about most — namely revitalizing the economy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.


Second, the LDP faces a veto player in the form of its junior coalition partner, Komeito. Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi has already voiced doubts over boosting Japan’s defense spending, citing the need for focusing financial resources on rebounding the Japanese economy and bolstering social welfare programs. Especially with two elections forthcoming, Komeito has enough leverage over its coalition partner to prevent any radical changes in Japan’s existing defense designs.


Finally, people the world over know that promises made during a campaign season tend to have the shortest shelf life. That political reality is no different in Japan.


With those things in mind, we can turn to the interesting points from the manifesto.


One is related to the core documents that underpin Japan’s security, of which there are three. There is the National Security Strategy, which offers whole-of-government policy guidance related to all realms of security. The Japanese government has only produced one National Security Strategy, which came in December 2013.


Under the Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga administrations, there were no major shifts in policy direction that would warrant an update, but the LDP announced via its policy pledges that it will now work on a rewrite, something that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reaffirmed following the North Korean missile launch this week.


Then there is the National Defense Program Guidelines, which provides the policy direction for the Ministry of Defense, Japan Self Defense Forces and relevant ministries and agencies. The last version of the guidelines came in December 2018, and it is logical that the new Kishida administration would look to create its own document for determining Japan’s near-to-mid-term defense posture. The LDP affirmed a guideline rewrite in its policy pledge last week.


Finally, there is the Medium Term Defense Plan, Japan’s five-year defense acquisition program. The current defense plan covers Fiscal Year 2019 to 2023, and the next version will build off the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines.


It was always likely that the Kishida administration would update these core documents, but its mention in the LDP’s manifesto cements it. The only question is when we should expect publication of the new documents and the Abe administration offers a useful precedent.


Abe waited until after the Upper House election in 2013 to roll out his new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines, and we should expect the Kishida government to do the same. That would put the target date for publication sometime in late 2022.


It is also worth exploring the point about Japan’s defense spending. The policy manifesto calls for Japan to reach the same defense expenditure target as the NATO allies, which is 2% of each country’s respective GDP. That figure is double what the de facto ceiling has been for Japan since 1976 when then-Prime Minister Takeo Miki declared that Japan would never spend more than 1% of its GDP on defense.

This issue has been oft-discussed inside Japan’s government circles for the past few years, but a lot of it comes down to accounting.


What gets counted as “defense spending” varies from country to country, as some governments include things like pensions for retired service members and morale programs. With different accounting methods, Japanese government officials could probably claim that it currently spends more than 1% of its GDP on defense. Therefore, the issue is a practical one constrained by a political number.


What the LDP is specifically targeting is an increased budget for weapons procurement and sustainment to try to keep pace with its closest competitor, China.


The NATO 2% target is a useful tool for the LDP in getting around the political constraint by arguing that Japan is spending well below what other peers are dedicating, and therefore any expenditures above 1% should be acceptable. Reiterating this point in a policy manifesto does not mean that Japan will suddenly double its defense spending, but it does mean the LDP is determined to move past the 1% debate once and for all and dedicate more of the national budget towards defense acquisitions, even if only incrementally so.


Finally, it is important to look at an issue that always seems to be on observers’ minds: constitutional revision. It earned its own subsection in the policy manifesto, which may lead many to think that this is a policy priority for the Kishida administration. Such is not the case. It was featured in nonprominent places in the pamphlet and the manifesto, and the language employed in the document is consistent with the same language we have seen for years now. It stated the need to educate the people on the necessity for constitutional amendment and reiterated the LDP’s four-point approach: one, clarifying the legality of the Self-Defense Forces; two, incorporating provisions for emergency powers; three, electoral district reform; and instituting free education.


The tempered language on constitutional amendment is a natural consequence of trying to avoid a known friction point in the upcoming elections, but one must also keep in mind that Fumio Kishida has demonstrated no interest in pushing this particular agenda item throughout his career.


Kishida is decidedly focused on economic issues, and while others in the LDP may want to spend political capital on constitutional amendment, the party president and prime minister has the final word. In the case of the policy pledges, the LDP was always going to include constitutional amendment as part of the Party’s platform, but there was no trace of Kishida’s personal interest in the language of the publications.


The takeaway is that we should not expect any substantial changes in Japan’s defense designs until after the Upper House election in summer 2022. At that point, we should plan on seeing a new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines, with the next MTDP building off of those documents.


We are also not likely to see any drastic shift in Japan’s defense spending until the 2023 budget at the earliest. But even then, increases will likely be gradual over time. Finally, constitutional amendment is unlikely to be a priority agenda item under the Kishida administration, however long the new prime minister may last.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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