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Questions raised as Japan massively increases defence spending

Militarisation of a nation does not happen overnight. Such a truth might be most marked in the fact that the Japanese cabinet – one that for decades was wary of the traumas of war and the dangers of bellicose nationalism – has unveiled its 2023 budget for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). A total of JPY 6.8 trillion ($52 billion) has been put aside for an arms race that may have deep and unintended consequences.

This spike in funding marks a 26% increase from the JSDF budget for 2022, and is the largest year-on-year nominal increase in planned military spending since at least 1952. Of concern, the 2023 budget is the first under Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), which aims to bring spending on ‘defense and other outlays’ to 2% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027. This represents a significant shift from the post-war “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” which capped military spending at 1% of GDP and limited its military capabilities to repel an armed attack on Japanese territory.

Japan’s post-war military spending has undergone four distinct phases.

From 1952 to 1961, military spending lagged behind overall economic growth, resulting in a shrinking military burden (military spending as a share of GDP). From 1962 to 2001, military spending increased in line with economic growth, averaging 4.4% annual growth and remaining below 1% of GDP. From 2002 to 2017, during the “lost decade,” military spending remained stagnant and the military burden remained below 1% of GDP. Since 2017, military spending has risen faster than GDP, passing 1% of GDP in 2020 for the first time since 1960. The 2027 target of 2% of GDP covers all security-related spending, including the military budget, Japan Coast Guard, public security infrastructure, and civil defence costs.

The Japanese government cites the worsening security environment around the country, including China’s assertiveness, North Korea’s unpredictable military activities, and Russia’s aggressiveness, as the main justification for increasing military spending. The aim is to prepare the JSDF to take primary responsibility for dealing with any potential invasion of Japan. To this end, the government plans to invest in updating the JSDF’s maritime and air systems, including aircraft, ships, and long-range missiles, and increase self-reliance by expanding the domestic arms industry. Japan will continue to rely on US imports for many aircraft and missiles, with plans to purchase 16 F-35 combat aircraft in 2023 as part of a larger package of 65 F-35s to be acquired before 2027. But there is certainly a change in tactics of Japan’s approach to defence and militarism. And, as history has a habit of showing us, once nations begin seriously to arm themselves, those weapons have a habit of being used sooner or later.