Against China, Russia, and North Korea, Japan Is Redoubling Its Defenses

Against China, Russia, and North Korea, Japan Is Redoubling Its Defenses
A Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Type-74 tank fires ammunition during a live fire exercise at the JSDF's training grounds in the East Fuji Maneuver area in Gotemba, Japan, on May 22, 2021. (Akio Kon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Richard A. Bitzinger
President Joe Biden has succeeded in corralling Japan and South Korea—two countries with a long history of “frosty relations” (to say the least)—into a quasi-alliance with the United States. This tripartite coalition is by no means an “Asian NATO,” but it sends a strong message of Western unity in the Pacific to Beijing and Moscow.
The agreement covers enhanced cooperation on missile defense and other defense technologies, annual trilateral military exercises, and a “commitment to consult” on security issues affecting all three nations.

More than that, however, it is a sign that Japan is taking seriously its pledge to up its game when it comes to national defense. For decades, Tokyo limited its military spending to just 1 percent of GDP, which meant defense cuts during the first decade of the 21st century, as the economy failed.

At the same time, Tokyo was much more tolerant of the Chinese regime’s bad behavior. Japan’s 2010 defense white paper noted merely that China’s regional military activities were a “concern for the region.”

Today, the mood in Tokyo is much darker due to twin threats from Russia and China. As Japan’s 2023 defense white paper put it, “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is an unprecedented situation. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has shown disregard for international law by launching an aggression against a sovereign country.”

Moreover, Tokyo continues to raise the alarm about China: The new white paper argues that Beijing “is rapidly enhancing its military capability qualitatively and quantitatively, including nuclear and missile forces, while continuing and amplifying its unilateral changes to the status quo by force” in the East and South China Seas.

To round out the list, North Korea “is rapidly advancing its nuclear and missile development.”

In the face of such a three-way threat, Tokyo is beefing up its defenses. In the first place, it is increasing its military spending, from 5.4 trillion yen (about $37.2 billion) in 2022—which was actually less than South Korea’s defense budget, a country two and a half times smaller—to 6.82 trillion yen (about $51.4 billion) in 2023.

Visitors watch a news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test at the ferry terminal of South Korea's eastern island of Ulleungdo, in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, on Nov. 3, 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors watch a news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test at the ferry terminal of South Korea's eastern island of Ulleungdo, in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, on Nov. 3, 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Overall, Japan expects to increase the budget for the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) by 56 percent over the five-year period 2023–2027, for a total of 43 trillion yen (about $324 billion). As a result, defense spending will rise to 2 percent of GDP, breaking a decades-long taboo.

This expanded defense spending will pour funding into several long-neglected areas. This includes $35.62 billion over the next five years for standoff defense capabilities; in comparison, Japan spent only $1.4 million on standoff systems in the previous five years. There is also a threefold increase ($21.37 billion) for integrated air and missile defenses.

Overall spending on military research and development will more than quadruple to $27 billion by the end of 2027.

This massive increase in defense spending will open the sluice gates on new acquisitions. Japan plans to acquire a variety of standoff weapons, including an extended-range version of its homegrown Type-12 anti-ship cruise missile and up to 500 ship-launched, U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles; new air-to-ground munitions, including the Joint Strike Missile (JSM) and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). Japan also plans to develop other missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

In addition, $7 billion will go to expanding cyberwarfare operations and another $7 billion toward space capabilities.

The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) is acquiring at least 147 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), of which 42 will be the short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) “B” version. Some of these F-35Bs will be used to outfit Japan’s two “new” aircraft carriers—the Izumo and Kago helicopter carriers, which are being converted to operate fixed-wing aircraft.

The ASDF is also collaborating with Britain and Italy to develop a sixth-generation fighter, the first time Japan has codeveloped a major weapon system with a country other than the United States. Tokyo will invest $5.6 billion into this program over the next five years, with the first aircraft to be deployed by 2035.

Regarding the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), it will acquire two new Aegis destroyers (for a total of eight ships), four new frigates, and 34 P-1 maritime patrol aircraft over the next few years. The MSDF will also build seven new submarines, to keep its total number at 22 boats.

Finally, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) is enhancing its maneuver and deployment capabilities by acquiring 13 V-22 Ospreys, up to 22 C-2 transport aircraft, and several hundred Type-16 wheeled armored combat vehicles. The GSDF plans to establish six rapid deployment regiments.

At the same time, in doubling down on its defense efforts to deal with growing threats, Tokyo faces two crucial challenges. The first is institutional. Japan’s military still lacks a modern command structure to deal with the demands of modern, cross-domain operations—that is, the ability to operate as a unified unit across the various domains of ground, maritime, air, space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

The SDF is, therefore, still weak regarding interservice joint operations. The ASDF and GSDF, for example, have non-coordinated force commands. The MSDF has more experience working with the U.S. Navy than its sister services.

To deal with this deficiency, Tokyo says it will establish its first joint command center. But it has been talking about this for the past 20 years with little to show for it, so far.

The other challenge to Japan’s military buildup is the continued decline of its domestic arms manufacturing. Japan’s defense industry has been shrinking in size and capabilities for the past two decades. It remains mainly a metal-bashing business, building tanks, submarines, and warships. Still, it lacks the 21st-century expertise necessary to produce cutting-edge weaponry, particularly precision-strike munitions, drones, or highly specialized defense electronics.

Japan has to try to energize its sluggish domestic defense industry and promote domestic and international military research and development. But profits have continued to dwindle, and many Japanese companies have exited the defense business altogether. As a result, the SDF continues to import large quantities of arms, mostly from the United States.

Obviously, if Japan is to possess a high-tech, 21st-century military that can compete with China and Russia, then it needs to modernize its defense industry. Collaborating with the United Kingdom and Italy on a next-generation fighter is a good first step. Cooperating with the United States and South Korea on a missile defense shield is another good idea. Let’s hope that this new tripartite association will give Japan further opportunities to put its money where its mouth is.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.
Related Topics