Japan set to become one of the world’s biggest defence spenders amid China-Taiwan tensions

Japan is set to approve what could be its biggest increase in defence outlays since the end of the war, putting it on a path to becoming one of the world’s top military spenders.

In a Defense Ministry budget request for fiscal 2023 expected by the end of August, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling party is looking to double spending over five years from this year’s 5.4 trillion yen ($39.5 billion). Outlays of that scale could propel Japan from ninth in the world for military spending to a likely third spot behind the US and China, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, which tracks defence spending. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s rumblings toward Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons have raised alarm in Japan and helped build public support for more spending. Those three nuclear-armed countries that neighbour Japan also possesses three of the largest militaries in the world with a combined 5.5 million personnel, according to the World Bank. Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, has approximately 231,000 personnel.

Beyond just buying pieces of hardware, Japan faces pressure to spend more on less visible items like pay rises, ammunition, spare parts and logistics.

China has provided a reminder of what’s at stake by firing ballistic missiles that landed near Japan’s southwestern islands during military manoeuvres around Taiwan this month. Kishida has warned that Taiwan is at the frontline of the standoff between China and the US and a contingency in the Taiwan Strait would have enormous consequences for Japan.

Image source: UCA News

Japan has traditionally kept its defence budget to about 1% of gross domestic product, relying on the US “nuclear umbrella” to back up its own capabilities under a pacifist constitution. But, in an unusual move, no cap will be placed on expenditure requests at this point, the Mainichi newspaper and other media have reported.

While the initial Defense Ministry request for fiscal 2023 will mark a relatively modest increase to 5.5 trillion yen ($40.2 billion), Kyodo News reported, the final figure is expected to go higher as unspecified costs for about 100 items are finalized.

The ministry is looking at new hardware that includes improved missiles and radar systems that could intercept rockets from China and North Korea — including hypersonic systems — and introducing unmanned aerial combat drones, the Yomiuri said. Japan plans to reach an arsenal of about 1,000 missiles that can be fired from ships and planes and reach into North Korea and China, the paper said.

According to the reports, there also will be a budget for co-developing a next-generation fighter jet with the UK

Japan has been gradually increasing its defence outlays for the past decade, after a policy U-turn initiated by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when he came to office in 2012. 

Plans for a hike have met a positive reaction in opinion polls following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, with about 50% of respondents to a June survey by Jiji Press approving of an increase. Nevertheless, most baulked at doubling the budget in the world’s most heavily indebted country.  

Meanwhile, some warn bolstering defences may not achieve the results Japan is hoping for unless it’s accompanied by the right diplomatic and economic policy.  

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