Why Japan’s Biggest Defense-Spend Hike in Over Two Decades Isn’t Going to Buy Much

The biggest increase in defense spending in 22 years is the latest signal that Japan is getting serious about bolstering its defenses in the face of a rising China. But it might not be serious enough

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Itsuo Inouye / AP

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Kurama leads other vessels during a fleet review in Sagami Bay, south of Tokyo, on Oct. 14, 2012

The biggest increase in defense spending in 22 years is the latest signal that Japan is getting serious about bolstering its defenses in the face of a rising China. But it might not be serious enough.

Japan announced last week a $49 billion defense budget for 2014 that will add surveillance capabilities in Japan’s southwest islands and speed the training and equipping of soldiers to defend remote territory — including islands claimed by China.

What’s more, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working to rescind a ban on collective self-defense. The current policy forbids Japan’s military from aiding allies unless the Japanese themselves are directly attacked and has hampered Japan’s ability to forge closer ties with friendly nations.

Abe also is overseeing a review of defense guidelines that could alter basic strategy and spending priorities established in 2010 — before the latest standoff with China.

(MORE: Japan Unveils the Izumo, Its Largest Warship Since WWII, Amid Tensions With China)

The 3% increase in spending for 2014, if approved, would be the largest since 1992 and the first back-to-back hike in defense spending since the mid-’90s. Japan’s annual defense budget declined every year from 2002 to ’12.

Reversing that trend is meaningful, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.

“A declining defense budget in a time of increasing international uncertainty doesn’t make Japan terribly credible,” says Glosserman. “The important thing is that the Japanese send a signal that they are getting serious about defense, and they seem cognizant of that. They understand they have to do things differently.”

Japan has been losing the spending war with China for some time.

Beijing spent $166 billion on defense in 2012, roughly three times that of Japan, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. From 2003 to ’12, China’s defense budget increased by 175%, while Japan’s declined (it should be noted that comparisons can be difficult because of exchange-rate fluctuations and the opaque nature of China’s defense establishment).

With big spending has come new assertiveness. Chinese patrol craft regularly encroach on Japanese-administered waters around the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu. Incidents were narrowly avoided twice this year when Chinese warships locked targeting radar on Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships and aircraft in international waters nearby.

(MORE: What Japan’s Latest Anime Blockbuster Says About the Country’s Wartime Past)

As dramatic as the turnaround in Japan’s defense spending might appear, it will buy very little new capability. Much of the increase in 2014 would go to restoring government-wide pay cuts imposed after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan.

The leftover will pay for surveillance aircraft to relocate from northern Japan to Okinawa to help patrol Japan’s southwest island chain and the adjacent East China Sea. A new radar facility will be located on the island of Yonaguni, not far from Taiwan.

Training will accelerate for a planned amphibious warfare unit that — like the U.S. Marines — would be capable of operating from warships. Their job would be to defend or retake remote islands.

New, big-ticket items are scarce. The budget includes money for preparing to buy Global Hawk or other long-range surveillance drones, and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to transport the new amphibious troop from ship to shore. But no money to actually buy the new aircraft; that would wait for later years.

(MORE: Japan’s PM Abe Faces Quandary Over Visiting Controversial Shrine That Honors War Criminals)

Abe’s plans for easing the reins on the military could be in trouble, as well. A newspaper poll released last week shows 59% of voters are opposed to changing the current ban collective self-defense.

Article 51 of the U.N. Charter allows member nations to defend themselves individually or collectively if attacked. Japan maintains that it has the right to engage in collective self-defense, but that doing so would exceed the minimum necessary use of force permitted under the constitution.

By tradition, Japan’s defense spending has been capped at roughly 1% of GDP, and the 2014 budget stays within that limit. Nonetheless, Japan has the world’s fifth largest defense budget, and a powerful military. The JMSDF, in particular, bristles with modern submarines and surface warships, with highly trained crews.

Still, Japan needs to change the way it operates to meet growing challenge, says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in Tokyo.

“First and most importantly, Japan must cooperate more closely with its friends in Asia — especially Australia, Southeast Asian countries and India — to maintain the balance of power,“ he says. “Some level of offensive capability and flexibility in use of force — by making it possible for Japan to take collective self-defense actions, for example — might help.”

What about the 3% boost in spending in 2014? Will that help? Says Michishita: “Not really.”

MORE: The Identity Crisis That Lurks Behind Japan’s Right-Wing Rhetoric

55 comments
JamesSavik
JamesSavik

Memories are long in the Pacific and a rearmed Japan makes many of the players nervous.

The 500 pound gorilla across the Yellow Sea is also making the players nervous. 

China is providing the music for this dance.

walle990
walle990

From 2003 - 2012, China economy quadtripled (from 1.8 to 8.25 trillion) and their defense spending increased 175%.

p56741944
p56741944

Japanese hawkish politicians' ambitions have been prevented by the liberal atmosphere which is dominant in Japan.
But,aggressive behaviors of China and S Korea against Japan are changing the situation drastically.
Japanese are mulling whether to give rein to their politicians or not.

Johnwenhua
Johnwenhua

Article after article mention the fact that China's defense budget is so big, but never mention the fact that it started from a low base. By virtue of being the second largest economy in the world for decades before China took over two years ago, Japan's cumulative defense spending far outstripped those of China's. As a consequence, Japan has a far superior military capability than China's. Moreover, with U.S. help, Japan has a far more sophisticated and advanced weaponry than China. It would be years before China can catch up with Japan's military capability and decades before she can match that of the U.S.

Dexter Waweru
Dexter Waweru

The age of the Samurai shall be upon us once again! Woo hoo! Expel all foreigners!! >:-)

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

No your right. Almost every country at some point in their history has caused havok to surrounding neighbours. But we have no power over history. Nobody should be expected to live under the shadow of their ancestors past but to learn from their mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. I just want people to learn from them and move on.

Thomas Qian
Thomas Qian

Japan is a powerful nation, and a capable military would befit that status. It's not like they're undergoing a rigorous process of rearmament to forge an empire out of war. The greater danger lies with appeasement, anybody who knows Neville Chamberlain would agree. FYI I'm Han Chinese.

Rebecca Ann Hollar
Rebecca Ann Hollar

Roy Lee, I am not smart about history, but didn't China also do those things that you say Japan did? I have Hmong friends that tried to explain it to me once. You'd think that in this day and age, we'd all learn to be less greedy and work together more, but I think Greed is a terrible parasite that spreads, unfortunately

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

Matthew have a look at this :D

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

And yes. I am patriotic about my country. But if my ancestors have made their mistakes in the past, I know I am big enough to accept their mistakes and move on. We may have to work hard to try and correct ourselves even though we were not the generation that caused this, but I would be embarassed if we ignore and hide these truth just to keep ourselves at right.

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

This completely changed the worlds view upon their nation. Sadly this is not the case for the Japanese government. I have nothing, nothing against the people of Japan as I have quite a few Japanese friends. What I was concerned about how Japan is bolstering their "defenses" is that they have not accepted their fault for creating such pain in the south east asia region. This suggests that once they've increased their "defenses", it is a strong possibility that they will use it aggressively at some point in the future. As John C. Maxwell stated (look it up cause you probably wont have heard of him) "A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them", it clearly shows how Germany has succeeded in those ways...

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

I think I can go a bit further. Germany, who started WW1 and WW2 managed to learn from their mistakes and now actively show their remorse towards the horror that Hitler has caused.

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

Oh should I continue? "One day the Land of the Rising Sun will rise again". I can see that your longing for those days to come back. The flag with the red strips coming out from the centre was a symbol of war. Of course you would want those days back. You were the "boss". But thankfully our society does not look kindly to those who use force as a method. Funnily enough, as Sindelo mentioned, your using words such as "moron" and "stupid" suggesting how aggressive you are. Think that relates back to my point where force is not appreciated.

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

Plus, I'm sure people will agree that educated people do not look back and say "incredible patriotic, intelligent and braver THAN ANY OTHER RACE OF PEOPLE". That, is racism.

Weike Wang
Weike Wang

I think it all boils down to this, when u don't have enough, you look for more else where. N u make excuse to make ur greed seem legit, most often by projecting ur own wicked logic onto ur opponents. I would die to see my "provinces" freed from the undeserving Chinese, but we all know what happens when there is war. Pp need to make a bigger pie instead of killing others for a better share of it.

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

Sadly I had to learn about how Japan decided to go rogue and take over nations surrounding them during WW2 because I am from S.Korea. How they forced our women to be used as sex slaves, how they took all our freedom, how they murdered our ancestors, how they took our resources, how they are still trying to claim our land even after these outragious deeds...

Sindelo Siyaxolisa
Sindelo Siyaxolisa

I live to see the day where a simple 'go do your research' reply would be enough, without adding 'moron' and degrading other people. I mean, it's simple really

Greg Xanthos
Greg Xanthos

Yes, it was an increase, but a not so praiseworthy 0.5% or so. China's military spending increased around 10%. Economic growth will let you do that.

Oki Mikito
Oki Mikito

People of the world should just take a peek at the enormous scale of atrocity, massacre, rape, and genocide that took place under Communist China since 1949. They killed ca. 80 million people of its own. That's 80,000,000 people!!! ... and they aren't stopping. Should India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Myanmar, and Japan let all those heinous crimes pass, play sitting duck, and allow the Red Army to, say, continue on "LIBERATING" us??? Hell no, I'd say. So sarin gas was used in Syria, killing a couple of hundred people. Big friggin' deal. Take that to China, and you'll be their laughingstock for a while. But hey, apply that rate to China, and you know, we should be bombarding Beijing at least 266000 times. BTW, I see Korea and its president Park (argh! too many Parks!! but they're all whacky IMO) wishes to be China's protectorate... so be it, I'd say ;-)

Keyser Söze
Keyser Söze

^ On the contrary moron. Here is an idea; go and do some history research about The Empire of Japan and then come back and make another stupid comment. That's only possible if your single digit IQ allows you to do so.

陳士亮
陳士亮

Should Asia countries knee to China ? As three hundred years ago, this is China dream!

Cori LBere
Cori LBere

A little to late, very sad, and anyway China is huge.

Gillian Dines
Gillian Dines

this along with the usa doing training with aussies & Russians warships in the med - freaks me out !!!! I wish I only cared what miley was doing - tune this reality out !!!

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

^ A genuine war hungry maniac right here. Reminds me of Hitler and his friends.

Keyser Söze
Keyser Söze

Rule 1 in military warfare: Never, ever underestimate the Japanese. The Japanese people are incredibly patriotic, intelligent and braver than any other race of people I have ever encountered. One day the Land of the Rising Sun will rise again.

Roy Lee
Roy Lee

"defenses" they say... If only they learn from their past mistakes :/

Scott Soffen
Scott Soffen

Just screw up another nuke plant and you wont need a defense budget. MORONS.

Tamara Epps
Tamara Epps

They're serious enough about out doing everything in America to better theirs.

Don_Ko
Don_Ko

The amphib ship seems extremely expensive, disproportionate to other critical modernization requirements and arguably vulnerable.  An alternative expenditure would be to maybe procure 4-5x modified JHSV type hulls w RHIB/amphib vehicle/CH-47//H-60/S-70/+unmanned uav + 1x submarine for the same cost?

osmelabdul
osmelabdul

@TIME @TIMEWorld this is a good thing for japan.letting know that they are not to be bullied.respect your neighbors and they'll respect you