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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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