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Commentary: Center-left Kishida endorses bold moves in security realm

  • November 30, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



When Fumio Kishida became prime minister, some questioned how this traditionally center-left politician would approach security issues. Would he put them on the back burner as he focused on economic and domestic policies? Would he step aside and let his home Liberal Democratic Party dictate defense matters?


Whatever the concerns may have been when he took office, Kishida has leaned forward on defense issues these past few weeks.


Despite the looming Upper House election and his own economics-focused agenda, Kishida has personally endorsed some bold moves in the security realm since taking office. Most notably, these have come with the supplemental budget, his position towards so-called strike capabilities, a recent decision on the evacuation of Japanese citizens in Ethiopia and his pursuit of a longer-term evolution of Japan’s security strategy.


Defense budget

On Dec. 6, the ruling coalition will convene an extraordinary session of parliament to pass the biggest-ever supplementary budget. Included in that supplementary budget is ¥773.8 billion ($6.7 billion) for defense spending, or about 13% of the annual defense budget. About half of it will go to subsidizing Japanese defense firms that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The other half is not for new purchases, but to expedite procurement projects that are already included in the budget for fiscal year 2022.


Although in practice this does not sound exciting, it represents something that has not been all too common in the realm of Japanese security: a sense of urgency. The Kishida administration will use the supplementary budget to bolster its southwest islands defense designs, purchasing missile defense equipment, anti-air equipment and transport and maritime domain awareness aircraft.


Also included in the supplementary budget are funds meant for moving forward on basing new missile batteries in Ishigaki, an island southwest of Okinawa. In other words, the Kishida administration will brook no delay in implementing its defense designs.


Strike capabilities

Last week, Kishida traveled to Camp Asaka just outside of downtown Tokyo to visit the Ground Self-Defense Force units there. He reviewed the troops, donned a helmet, rode a tank and then delivered some interesting remarks.


Among the things he said was that striking enemy bases was an option in the face of regional threats. He was unequivocal in that statement, well-establishing his administration’s position on the matter that, if necessary, he would employ the SDF to use force against an adversary’s military bases to defend the country.


That position itself is unsurprising. It has long been the constitutional interpretation that a strike against enemy bases to defend Japan is lawful, and it reflects the LDP’s policy that has been championed by none other than Kishida’s faction-mate, former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.


What is surprising is that Kishida would open so early in his administration with this position, offering a clear signal of a position that will likely be reflected in the strategies and policies to come. There are some significant hurdles associated with realizing strike capabilities, including acquiring the equipment necessary to execute those operations; modifying Japan’s security laws and policies to make them actionable; working through the budgeting and priorities debate; and figuring out where to base those new capabilities in the country. Those are all daunting tasks, but Kishida has signaled that his administration will attempt to overcome them.


Ethiopia evacuation

On the same day that Kishida traveled to Camp Asaka, it was revealed that he had authorized the dispatch of a small team to Djibouti. The team’s mission: gather information on the deteriorating security situation in Ethiopia and prepare for any potential evacuation effort, including that which might require SDF aircraft. With this, Kishida demonstrated a learned lesson from Afghanistan: If ever it seems that citizens will need to be rescued from a foreign country, stay ahead of the wave.


In Ethiopia, it appears that wave may be coming. The situation there has rapidly worsened, as rebels from the country’s Tigray region fought their way close to Addis Ababa, the capital city. The Ethiopian government implemented gag orders on the media to prevent leaks of operational information, and the prime minister himself, Abiy Ahmed, has said that he will be heading to the front lines to direct the Ethiopian military, just two years after he received the Nobel Prize for the peace agreement he brokered with bordering Eritrea.


In response, the Japanese government has already issued travel advisories, raised the threat condition and facilitated departures for citizens via commercial aircraft. Still, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, a few dozen more citizens remain in the country that could require evacuation. Time will tell if a noncombatant evacuation operation will be necessary from Ethiopia, but the Kishida administration has indicated that should the need arise, they will not be caught flat-footed.


National security guidelines

There are three documents that are key for informing Japan’s security policies. The first is the National Security Strategy, which offers a whole-of-government perspective on security objectives and policy direction. Second is the National Defense Program Guidelines, a document that focuses on the Ministry of Defense and the SDF’s long-term policy designs. Finally, there is the Medium-Term Defense Program, which is essentially a five-year acquisition plan for defense capabilities.


Prior to the Lower House election, the Kishida-led LDP pledged to develop a new National Security Strategy and Defense Program Guidelines. Later, Kishida instructed the members of the National Security Council to carry out that effort with the goal of publication in 2022. This will set the foundation for what will be on the acquisition list in the Medium-Term Defense Program that will come in the following year.

With this, the Kishida administration has demonstrated that it is wasting no time in seizing the opportunity to distinguish its security policies from the past two prime ministers. After all, the National Security Strategy has remained unchanged since the first-ever iteration under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, and the last National Defense Program Guidelines came in 2018.


It is unlikely that Kishida will usher in any drastic changes that have not already been gestating inside the LDP and Ministry of Defense, but it will be important to see which items gain the top priority within those documents under Kishida’s watch.


With the Upper House election set to occur sometime in the summer, we should expect the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines to be completed and released sometime between September and December next year. Those documents will give us a sense of what to expect from Kishida’s forward-leaning security posture for the longer-term.


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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