On December 22, 2016, the Japanese Cabinet approved a record $44 billion (5.1 trillion yen) defence budget. This is seen as a response to the deteriorating security environment in the country’s neighbourhood, in particular its perceived threats from its west. Japan is going to invest billions of dollars in new submarines, ships and stealth fighter aircraft, focusing on defending the Senkaku Islands, the chains in the East China Sea administered by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. The planned acquisition of six submarines will be equipped with improved sensor technology and could face appropriately to the Chinese challenge.
Even with a self-posed ceiling of keeping defence spending below 1 percent of the GDP, Japan possesses one of the most advanced naval capabilities. The present author had a rare experience of visiting DD Harusume, a Destroyer at Yokosuka Bay on 10 March 2011, and interacting with the Captain of the ship, a day before the great east Japan earthquake and the ship dispatched soon on rescue mission. The sight of a number of warships lined up at the Bay gave an impression how powerful the country’s naval capability is. Equally impressive was a visit to the Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture on 27 November 2016 and witness the demonstration of advanced air power and convinced that the country possesses a sophisticated strength of aircraft that could be lethal in the battle theatre. The very fact that over a million people witnessed this demonstration spread over the entire day also meant to develop a sense of patriotism among the people who could be sensitized at the time of national security crisis.
The mention of the above two experiences is to make a point that there would be a general acceptance by the people of Japan if the government opts for a greater defence spending. The people of Japan understand that the nation’s security environment is fragile and though protected by the US under alliance relationship, would endorse greater preparedness by the country itself. The nation’s confidence is also drawn from the experiences of World Wars. Indeed, with a vast coast line the country’s submarine fleet with focus on specific mission seems to be its core strength. The acquisition of submarines is not a sudden process; the investment in this area started in the 1950s with focus on up-gradation of technology and procurement on continuous basis.
Japan’s grand strategy seems to be deterrence against China. Japan’s intention is to show China through upgrades the high costs of missteps in order to prevent war. Currently, Japan has 17 diesel-electric submarines and plans to increase the fleet to 22 by around 2021. In comparison, China’s submarine fleet consists of around 60 vessels, including nuclear-powered craft that can travel very long distances at high seas.
Strengthening Coast Guard
Even the country’s Coast Guard is being strengthened with emphasis to protect the Senkaku Islands because the site has seen repeated confrontations between Japanese and Chinese forces in recent times. There have been allegations and counter-allegations between both sides that military aircrafts have trespassed into each other’s territory. While China alleges that Japanese jets interfered with Chinese military aircraft from close range, endangering the safety of Chinese aircraft and crew, Japan said its jets scrambled when six Chinese military aircraft “trespassed” into its territorial waters in the Miyako Strait, near the Senkakus. When Chinese coast guard vessels repeatedly violated Japan’s territorial waters around the disputed islands, Japan protested in August 2016 more than two dozen times through diplomatic channels.
In view of such incidents, Japan felt the need to strengthen the capability of its Coast Guard and therefore increased its budget by 12%. Japan plans to add new coast guard ships to a 14-ship fleet to defend the East China Sea islands. The allocation of a record 210 billion yen is towards the acquisition of two new patrol ships and hiring of 200 more personnel.
Japan’s MSDF and the US Navy are engaged in joint warning and surveillance activities in the Sea of Japan as they fear that North Korea shall launch a ballistic missile soon. In a normal course also, the US Aegis-equipped vessel engages in the warning and surveillance activities on behalf of the MSDF destroyers when they need to leave the Sea of Japan for refueling and other purposes. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the capability of the MSDF and SDF to cope with North Korea’s missiles remains limited, which is why Defence Minister Tomomi Inada requested the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter during her visit to the US in September for the backup arrangement by the US forces.
Destructive Measures Order
The US Navy has deployed seven ballistic defense system (BMD)-capable Aegis vessels at Yokosuka and share information with the MSDF on regular basis as the US is obliged to defend Japan based on the Security Treaty between the two countries. In view of the constant threat and continuing missile launches at an unprecedented pace by North Korea, Japan needs to remain on alert all the time and therefore feels the deployment of Aegis destroyer in the Sea of Japan all the times necessary for its security. As per the destructive measures order issued in August 2016, Japan’s MSDF dispatched four BMD-capable Aegis vessels in turns to the Sea of Japan to compensate and fill the “vacuum” created by the US Navy’s absence during refueling and maintenance. This arrangement is likely to continue as Japan fears that North Korea is unlikely to discontinue its provocative acts.
What does this destructive measures order mean? In short, it means that a ballistic missile if seen heading towards Japan may be destroyed before hitting the target in order to protect lives and property. With the consent of the Prime Minister, Inada issued the order as per Article 82-3 of the Self-Defense Forces Law. “The SDF has a two-stage system in which an Aegis-equipped vessel on the sea launches a sea-to-air Standard Missile-3 interceptor missile (SM-3) to destroy the ballistic missile. If the SM-3 fails, a Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air missile will be launched to intercept it.” The upgrade in the defence budget allocation is towards the addition of six more F-35 Lightening stealth fighters. It is expected that the addition of the F-35s will “improve the deterrence and coping ability” of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force. While Japan has already received its first of the fifth-generation fighters from a factory in Texas in November 2016, the F-35s are planned to be made in Japan.
Japan’s defence spending vis-à-vis major powers
What is Japan’s position in defence spending vis-à-vis other major countries? With $44 billion allocation for the fiscal year beginning 1 April 2017, Japan’s military spending rose by 1.4 %, a rise for the fifth year in a row, though it still remains below 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) for more than two decades. This is one of the lowest levels among major global powers. This increase is because of the deteriorating security environment in the country’s neighbourhood and therefore towards better preparedness to meet its security needs. What is noteworthy is, even with a lower level of spending than China, Japan has produced a military that is shaping up to be among the world’s best. This is despite the Constitution limits the country’s forces to defensive purposes only. Abe is changing the contour of this through liberal interpretations of the Article 9 of the Constitution as amending it rather difficult. By enacting new security laws that took effect in 2016 making it possible for Japanese troops fight abroad for the first time since the end of World War II, Japan is on course to push for revising the peace Constitution.
According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in comparison China spends nearly 2% ($214.8 billion) of its GDP on defense and more than five times the dollar amount compared with Japan.
The US is the biggest international spender on defense, at 3.3 % of GDP, or $596 billion in 2015. While South Korea’s defence spending as percentage of the GDP is 2.6% or $36.4 billion, North Korea’s is between 15 to 24% of the GDP or $3.4 to $9.5 billion. Because of the opaque nature of North Korea, a definite estimate of its defence spending is difficult to get.
The most worrying for Japan is North Korea’s high allocation towards the military and perceived threat from its missiles. As the most belligerent country in the world, North Korea fritters away a whopping 24% of GDP on defence. The average GDP amounted to 1.66 trillion Korean won and average annual military spending to 386 billion won from 2004 to 2014. This figure is more than double the proportion of the next most heavily armed nation Oman (11.4%). The figures in percentage to GDP ratio for other 10 top dictatorships are Saudi Arabia (3rd with 8.5%), followed by South Sudan (8.4%), Eritrea (6.9%), Israel (6.5%), Jordan (6.3%), Myanmar (6.1%), Yemen (5%) and UAE (4.9%). The US ranked 15th with 4.3% of a much vaster GDP, Russia 20th (3.8%), South Korea 47th (2.6%), China 68th (2%), and Japan 136th (1%). But if only capital allocation is considered, the US ranks first by a long margin with $569 billion, taking up 43% of the world’s entire global military spending and about 8.6 times North Korea’s $3.9 to $9.5 billion. South Korea with $36.4 billion ranked 11th. North Korea also ranks second in terms of the ratio of military personnel to the working population at 7.9 %, only topped by Eritrea’s 8.1%.
As regards India, its defence budget comes to 1.71 % of the GDP, and taken with defence pensions, 2.26 % of the country’s GDP. The parliamentary standing committee has recommended a minimum of 3% of GDP as the defence budget in its reports to the parliament.
Threat from North Korea
North Korea remains the big worry for Japan, besides China. In order to protect itself from the possible missile attacks by North Korea, Japan is investing in the latest US-developed ballistic missile interceptors for its ship-based Aegis missile defence system. Japan is also allocating more funds to upgrade ground-based ballistic missile interceptors. The series of missile tests conducted by North Korea in 2016 reached into Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, posing a “serious threat” to its security.
Japan is alarmed that in his New Year message, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed that his country is at the “final stages” of developing the banned long-range ballistic missiles and boasted that the country had significantly bolstered its nuclear deterrent in 2016. He remarked, Pyongyang had “soared as a nuclear power”, adding it was now a “military power of the East that cannot be touched by even the strongest enemy.” It may be recalled that North Korea carried out two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches in 2016 in pursuit of its oft-stated goal of developing a weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.
Opinions differ on how close Pyongyang is to realising its full nuclear ambitions, as it has never successfully test-fired an ICBM. But there is no dispute that Pyongyang has made enormous strides in that direction since Kim took power after his father Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011.
It transpires therefore that because of the perceived threats from North Korea and China, Japan finds compelling reason to boost its defence capabilities by higher allocation in defence spending. China’s territorial challenges to Japanese-administered islands and North Korea’s advancement in missile-and nuclear-weapons development are the propelling factors for increase in military spending.
Options for Japan
Even when Defence Minister Inada observed that the security environment surrounding Japan is becoming more severe, the issue of military spending also was an issue during the US presidential election campaign when President-elect Donald Trump called upon the allies to pay more for American military support. The US has stationed 54,000 military personnel in bases around Japan to defend Japan under a bilateral defense treaty.
President-elect Trump even suggested that both the US allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea – might even consider having their own nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now faces critical choices. If pushed further by Trump after he takes power, Abe would be in compelled to be in haste to pursuit his long-term nationalistic agenda by amending the Constitution paving the way to make Japan a “normal” state. Such a course shall raise eyebrows in the neighbourhood because of Japan’s militaristic history. At another level, Abe shall face huge domestic opposition as the country’s pacifist Constitution has received high acceptability among the people and altering or any attempt to alter it would find greater disapproval by people.
Even increased military spending by the government is viewed with scepticism. First President Obama pushed Japan to play a more active role in regional defense and now Trump is likely to put more pressure on Japan to do more. It would be a challenge for Abe or even any future Prime Minister to steer course for Japan’s future defence policy underpinned by challenges from China and North Korea becoming unstoppable.
The fact that Pyongyang’s long-term enemy is the US and made its intentions known that US bases in Asia would be its target, and upgrading its missile capability to even target the US mainland, Japan as an alliance partner is not expected to remain silent if its or US territory comes under North Korea’s missile attack. In 2016 itself of a dozens of test-firings of missiles by Pyongyang, four landed about 240 km from the coast of northern Japan, the closest since North Korean missiles flew over Japan in 1998 and 2009.
Compared to Japan, South Korea’s position is more vulnerable. In view of the constant threats coming across the border, the US and South Korea have decided to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense in South Korea, a move strongly opposed by China because its powerful radar system extends into Chinese territory. Because of increasing threat perception, Japan too is studying the missile defence upgrades, including the deployment of THAAD battery, which would again alarm China. The security situation in the region is getting more complicated by the day.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.