Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.06.24

Will Japan raise defense spending to 2% of GDP?

In the wake of recent aggressive Chinese actions, some believe the country needs to increase its defense budget

the japan times on June 10, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy

This week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet approved the government’s economic and fiscal policy guidelines, commonly called the Big-Boned Policy Outline.

Has Kishida decided to increase Japan’s defense budget to the NATO level of 2% of gross domestic product?

Probably not yet, and the following are the reasons why.

The 2022 Big-Boned Policy Outline states that “Based on the aforementioned recognition of the situation, Japan, while accelerating to revise the National Security Strategy and other relevant documents, will drastically strengthen its defense capability, within five years, which is the ultimate guarantee of its national security.”

The outline also mentions that Japan should strengthen such capabilities as “stand-off defense capabilities, unmanned equipment, cross-domain capabilities including space, cyber, and electromagnetic, mobile deployment capabilities, and command and control and intelligence-related functions, AI, unmanned vehicles, quantum and other advanced technologies.”

That said, the outline, without specifying an actual percentage of Japan’s GDP, only refers to the NATO commitment “to meet the standard of defense budget of more than 2% of GDP.” Some Kishida critics say the prime minister declined to take the advice of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has strongly advocated that Japan must meet the NATO standard.

No wonder many of the editorials in Japan’s media outlets are divided. A headline in one of the liberal Asahi Shimbun’s editorials read “Concerns raised about ballooning defense spending.” Editorials in other liberal newspapers such as the Mainichi and Tokyo called the new defense policy undisciplined and dangerous. Only the conservative Sankei Shimbun advocated for “more than 2% of defense spending as soon as possible.”

Pundits in Tokyo view this as a political tug of war between two Liberal Democratic Party schools of thought on fiscal policy — namely, fiscal discipline versus more fiscal spending.

I adhere to neither. As a student of Japan’s national security affairs, I simply believe it is high time for Tokyo to meet the NATO standard of 2% whether we like it or not.

The security environment in the Indo-Pacific is rapidly deteriorating while the world’s attention is glued to the Russian atrocities in the war in Ukraine. The recent example of this is the incident on May 26 involving Australian and Chinese military aircraft over the South China Sea.

The news of the confrontation was widely reported by the Japanese media, but the headlines were curiously nuanced. Here are some headlines used by Japanese news services: “Chinese fighter jet interferes, abnormally close to Australian patrol aircraft,” “Chinese warplane’s ‘dangerous behavior’ for Australia,” or “Chinese warplane abnormally close to Australian and Canadian patrol planes.” Those headlines aren’t misleading but they are very different than how the Australian government reported the incident.

The Australian Ministry of Defense announced on June 5 that “on 26 May 2022, a RAAF P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region.” The Australian Defense Ministry used “intercepted” and not “interfered” or similar descriptions.

“To intercept” as a military term means “to ambush and attack an enemy aircraft.” At least one Japanese news outlet, however, first used “intercepted” and then quickly changed it to ”interfered,” with a factual connotation added later on. I do not know why Japanese editors avoided in their news articles the word “intercepted,” which the Australians officially and clearly used.

The Australian Minister of Defense reportedly said, “The J-16 accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at very close distance” and “then released a bundle of chaff, which contains small pieces of aluminum, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft. Quite obviously, this is very dangerous.”

Yes, it is dangerous. It is an act of intercepting, not just interfering. If a military aircraft flies very close to your plane and releases flares and/or chaff that are to be ingested by an engine, it may fall short of an official act of aggression, but is very close. It would be regrettable if those Japanese editors intentionally tried to remain neutral and pay due consideration to the intercepting side.

It is hard to believe that this was an inadvertent act by the Chinese side. Most likely, the interception was intended to test the new prime minister of Australia. A Wall Street Journal editorial was right when it recently said that “Anthony Albanese has been Australia’s prime minister for less than a month, but China is already testing whether he’ll stand up to intimidation as well as his predecessor did.”

Unfortunately, such an incident was not the first either. On April Fool’s Day in 2001, a Chinese Air Force jet fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane over the South China Sea. The incident caused the death of the Chinese pilot and the 10-day detention of the U.S. air crew, who were forced to make an emergency landing on Chinese soil. Obviously Beijing was testing George W. Bush, the new president of the United States at the time.

Fortunately, however, those were the days when Washington and Beijing could find a compromise so that neither side lost face. The then U.S. ambassador to Beijing sent a letter to the Chinese foreign minister stating that both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell had expressed regret over the missing pilot and aircraft, “we are very sorry for the loss,” and “we are very sorry the entering of China’s airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance.” In the letter, though, Washington never apologized using the wording that Beijing actually wanted.

Those were the good old days. Such a diplomatic solution may no longer be possible now that a Chinese aircraft intentionally released flares and chaff in front of another country’s military plane. That is the very reason why I believe it is high time for Japan to try to double its defense budget.