BY JESSE JOHNSON, STAFF WRITER
For a pair of great powers that have long-held pacifist policies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have flipped the calculus.
Germany’s stunning announcement that it would massively boost its defense budgets — a historic policy shift triggered by the war in Eastern Europe — is widely expected to impact Japan’s own spending as calls grow for a similar move by Tokyo.
The unexpected and dramatic rethink by Germany comes as leaders in Japan debate doubling the country’s defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product from an informal cap of around 1%.
“We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterward will no longer be the same as the world before,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a speech Sunday.
“It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country. In order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” he added, announcing that his country will channel €100 billion ($113 billion) this year into a fund to modernize its military and that going forward it will spend more than 2% of GDP each year on defense. That figure is in line with the target set by NATO, which Berlin has long failed to reach.
Although a significant increase in defense spending has long been bandied about in Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has already laid the groundwork for a fresh push, establishing its own 2% goal and linking it to NATO spending targets in its platform released ahead of last October’s Lower House election.
In December, the Cabinet approved a record ¥5.4 trillion ($47.2 billion) defense budget for the year starting in April. It was the 10th straight increase in annual defense spending and marginally exceeded the 1% of GDP ceiling.
Defense hawks in the LDP have also stressed the need for more spending, lest they fall behind China’s military modernization push, which some say could allow Beijing to invade and take over Taiwan, a scenario that party heavyweights have said would represent an existential threat to Japan.
At a news conference Tuesday, Sanae Takaichi, chair of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, said that the amount of the defense budget that can be used for equipment and research “is getting very small,” adding that “the minimum requirement must be increased.”
A day earlier, in response to the German move to boost defense spending, Kenji Wakamiya, a former state minister of defense and for foreign affairs, stressed the need for Japan to follow suit.
“We, too, must pursue the ideal form of national defense in the face of the harsh reality of the international situation,” Wakamiya, who currently serves as World Expo 2025 minister, wrote in a tweet.
Their remarks echoed calls last year by LDP heavyweights for a defense hike.
Elbridge Colby, who helped write the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy as deputy assistant defense secretary for strategy and force development, said the German move would also heap external pressure on Japan to spend more.
“I do think this really increases the degree to which Japan is singled out among important U.S. allies on defense spending,” Colby said. “Germany was a hold out and Japan could point to them. Now Japan is really alone — look at Germany, Australia, the U.K., France, Poland, South Korea. They all send much more. And Japan is very vocal that it feels threatened. Japan’s laggard defense spending can’t go on.”
Australia and France currently spend about 2.1% of GDP, while the U.K. and Poland about 2.2%, and South Korea around 2.8%, according to World Bank data.
China’s defense budget, by contrast, rose by 6.8% in 2021 to 1.35 trillion yuan ($209 billion), roughly 1.7% of its GDP, a slight year-on-year increase — although the actual figure is believed to be substantially higher. Chinese analysts told the country’s state-run Global Times newspaper on Thursday that the increase in this year’s draft budget, set to be unveiled at the opening of the National People’s Congress (the country’s rubber-stamp legislature) on Saturday, could top 7%.
For his part, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not ruled out a large defense hike. Effectively shedding his public image as a dove on defense issues, he’s called out Beijing’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the region — including on Taiwan and the disputed Senkaku Islands — and has repeatedly vowed to strengthen Japan’s defenses, including through its alliance with the U.S.
In the most cited example of Beijing’s attempts to alter the status quo, it has repeatedly sent government vessels near the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkakus in the East China Sea. The waters surrounding the uninhabited islets, known as the Diaoyu in China, are known to be bountiful in fish and are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. More importantly, some observers say, their control by Beijing would give China a strategic foothold that could stymie U.S. and Japanese military operations in the Western Pacific.
Still, Kishida and the ruling party have remained cautious about pushing too hard on a defense spending hike as they focus on revitalizing the pandemic-hit economy ahead of the Upper House election this summer. Opposition from the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, which has voiced doubts over boosting Japan’s defense spending, has also dampened momentum on the issue. Komeito says funds would be better spent on boosting the economy and social welfare programs.
But Berlin’s about-face after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has begun to re-energize the issue.
Germany, Japan’s ally during World War II, had faced many of the same obstacles to plowing more cash into defense as Tokyo: Wartime legacies of aggression have caused pacifist and anti-military streaks to permeate the national psyches, making defense spending increases unpopular with the public.
Taking these similarities into account, Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, a visiting Japan fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that Germany‘s sudden and jarring shift would prompt “a much bigger, controversial and possibly much faster forward-moving discussion” on Japan’s own security policy than previously planned or expected.
“I believe discussions will not be about ‘if’ something has to change anymore, rather ‘what and to what extent’ it has to change,” Pohlkamp said.
Although Kishida, like his two immediate predecessors, had strongly supported building up the nation’s defenses, the issue was widely viewed as more of a long-term challenge.
But Colby, the former Pentagon official, said the China challenge made quick moves to boost defense spending all the more pressing.
“The China threat is a long-term threat like acute heart disease is,” he said. “You’re lucky if you get to the long-term — it’ll kill you in the near-term if you don’t deal with it immediately. Japan needs to dramatically increase defense spending right now.”
Asked about the German move at a news conference Thursday night, Kishida condemned the use of force to change the status quo, including in the Indo-Pacific, a comment that was seen as a veiled reference to China.
“In light of the recent invasion of Ukraine, a new National Security Strategy (NSS) will be formulated, and we must firmly discuss what exactly is required to protect the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people,” he said. “We must also think about how we can fundamentally strengthen our defense capabilities.”
Kishida has said that the new NSS, the first revision to the strategy since its inaugural drafting in 2013, will be completed along with other key diplomatic and defense documents by the end of the year. Experts say this would be a prime opportunity for the LDP to formally enshrine its defense spending goals in the policy documents.
“Against the background of the planned revision of Japan‘s National Security Strategy, I see a chance that the general discussions might change and move quicker than planned,” Pohlkamp said.
Another option for Kishida could come in the form of the simultaneous revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), the 10-year defense plans that outline targets for the country’s defense buildup.
Although Japan has never made a defense spending commitment in the guidelines, which have often been revised far before their 10-year expiration, the last time coming in 2018, this year could see a change in that area.
“They could do it in this one,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggesting that the government could embed “an actual statement of a goal and a time frame” in regards to the 2% of GDP goal in the 10-year plan.
“That would be a signal right there,” she said. “It would come out of the party platform and come into national policy.”
German scholar Sven Saaler, a professor of modern Japanese history at Sophia University in Tokyo, said that while discussions on defense spending “will surely be accelerated by the current war in Ukraine,” the conflict thousands of kilometers away “is only of indirect relevance to Japan at this point.”
Any quick hike, and even a more concrete goal, could also prompt serious criticism, severely damaging the country’s powerful pacifist image and reawakening the lingering specter of Japanese militarism — and not just from the usual suspects in China and South Korea, which have been known to use the country’s World War II atrocities for political gain.
“Japan has been slowly raising its defense budget for a decade without being confronted with serious criticism,” Saaler said. “A sudden raise to 2% of its GDP, however, would make Japan a military superpower and this would not only make the rhetoric of the ‘peace state’ entirely obsolete, it would probably trigger severe criticism throughout the region,” including Southeast Asia.
He added that, at present, a quick hike was unlikely, pointing to Kishida’s rejection last week of calls for discussions on nuke-sharing with the U.S. similar to that of some NATO countries. The prime minister noted the potential that could damage Japan’s pacifist reputation, which he called a “major asset” for the country’s global policies.
Still, Saaler noted that debate on the issue was likely to continue.
“Defense policies are not that simple that one size fits all, so national debates in each country are to be expected,” he said. “It will become necessary to match existing defense plans with the 2% target — or vice versa.”