The Japanese government and Western news outlets are highlighting Tokyo’s commitment to increase its military spending for the third straight year. Pundits and policy experts see the boost as a response to the spike in bilateral tensions with China—especially the bitter dispute concerning sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. But as with similar moves by the Baltic republics and Washington’s other NATO allies that reflect worries about Russia’s recent behavior, there is more symbolism than substance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision.
Japan’s defense budget for the fiscal year beginning in April will be 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion). The increase is quite modest—up from 4.84 trillion yen in the current year. Moreover, even the larger sum is less than half of China’s official military budget and less than one-third of what the Pentagon and most independent experts believe is Beijing’s actual level of spending. Although Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” already can deploy a significant amount of modern weaponry, such a large disparity in spending is cause for concern.
That is especially true since Abe’s government has adopted an increasingly assertive posture toward China on a range of issues. In one sense, U.S. officials have reason to be gratified by that move and Tokyo’s greater overall interest in East Asia’s security. Japan finally seems to be taking steps to become a normal great power regarding military matters instead of clinging to pacifism and relying on the United States to protect important Japanese interests. Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which officially places draconian restraints on the military, also reflect the shift in thinking.
But it is not enough to adopt a new security doctrine or make modest changes in the level of defense spending. If Tokyo intends to challenge China’s growing power in East Asia, the Japanese military budget will need to be substantially greater than it is currently. Such a commitment requires abolishing the self-imposed limit of spending no more than one percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product on defense. That does not mean that Tokyo must match Beijing’s military outlays dollar for dollar. In addition to its goals in the Western Pacific, China has challenges and objectives along vast land borders with Russia, India, and other countries. Japan’s security concerns are more limited and concentrated. Indeed, other than dealing with moves by China and North Korea, it is difficult to indentify a pressing Japanese defense issue.
Nevertheless, continuing to spend only a third as much as China while at the same time taking an increasingly confrontational stance toward Beijing is not a responsible policy. That combination implies that Tokyo still expects the United States to deter any Chinese moves directed against Japanese interests. In other words, Japan’s new foreign policy increases the danger of a conflict erupting in East Asia while the country’s military capabilities remain insufficient to enforce that policy.
Washington needs to be worried about such a combination, since it significantly raises the level of risk to the United States. Tokyo must take steps to bring its defense spending and its foreign policy objectives (especially those involving China) into alignment. That means either reverting to a more passive regional role or boosting military spending in a much more serious fashion.