NEW YORK – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s strong coalition victory in Sunday’s legislative elections has been hailed in Washington as a sign of continuity. But attention is quickly shifting to the size of Japan’s defense budget, which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pledged to increase.
As US President Joe Biden scrambles to fund his national agenda, hope grows that allies like Japan can dramatically increase defense spending to better share the burden.
But the gap between Washington’s hopes and a realistic pace of Japan’s increase could surface around next summer as discussions intensify over Japan’s budget for fiscal 2023.
As election results poured in on Sunday, Natsuo Yamaguchi – chairman of Komeito, Kishida’s PLD coalition partner – was asked on Fuji TV about his party’s stance on the PLD’s suggestion that Japan could increase its budget by defense of the current scale of around 1% of gross domestic product up to 2%.
âWhile it is possible to strengthen the defense budget, I don’t think a sudden doubling will gain public understanding,â Yamaguchi said.
Elbridge Colby, former Assistant U.S. Defense Secretary for Strategy and Force Development and lead author of National Defense Strategy 2018, said such a gradual increase will not be enough to deter China’s actions. âHow open is the public to a China-dominated Japan? ” He asked. “This is the very real risk of too slow an increase in Japan’s defense.”
“We are all behind on this point. The LDP put 2% in the party board, but when is that going to happen, like in 30 years? We don’t have much time,” said Colby.
The Biden administration “slaps relations with Japan, but US-Japanese relations are in crisis,” he warned. “The People’s Liberation Army is a problem of this decade.”
Patrick Cronin, president of Asia-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute, said: âBoth sides of the aisle in Washington want to see Japan do more, including paying more for defense. It’s a continuation of the [former President Donald] Trump, but in a more diplomatic way. “
Cronin noted that the 2% figure is not a request from Biden’s White House, but a request that the LDP has of its own accord incorporated into its political platform. âThere is a lot of room between 1% and 2% for Japan to do more,â he said.
âActually, the Biden administration would just like Japan to contribute more, above 1%, and I don’t mean a hundredth above 1%, but something between 1% and 2%, at least , would be a good start, “Cronin says.
The debate over increasing Japan’s defense spending gained momentum after hawkish candidate Sanae Takaichi, now the political leader of the LDP, proposed doubling the level to 2% of GDP during her campaign for the presidential election of the party in September. Takaichi’s strong surprise performance in this race prompted Kishida to write a similar, albeit more nuanced, pledge in the party’s platform for Sunday’s election.
Promising to “dramatically strengthen our own defense capability” and quickly formulate a new national security strategy, as well as specific plans to acquire major defense equipment, the party said, “With an eye on the spending targets of defense of NATO countries (more than 2% of GDP), we will aim to increase defense-related spending. “
Japan’s Defense Ministry has requested 5.4 trillion yen ($ 47 billion) for fiscal year 2022. An increase to 10,000 billion yen, as proposed by Takaichi, would mean an addition of over 40 billion. dollars.
During a webinar hosted by the Center for American Progress on Monday, Tobias Harris, the Center’s principal researcher for Asia, said that “you really have to look at the fine print on how they said 2%” when the LDP formulated the political commitment.
âIt wasn’t ‘we’re going to double defense spending,'” he said. “It was ‘with an eye on what the NATO countries are doing.’ So they gave themselves a lot of leeway. Clearly that will be something that will play out over time.”
He said the real battle would come next summer: âGiven the timetable, as far as budgets are concerned, the upper house elections in July of next year, followed by the budget process which is in full swingâ¦ he will be interesting to see what happens to the defense budget next year. “
In the same webinar, Sheila Smith, senior researcher for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Kishida âcould be a little more tempered and wait until the upper house elections are over to move forward with some of those more difficult defenses. problems.”
Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director and principal investigator of the Japan chair at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Observers in Washington will examine this selection and interpret it as a sign of continuity.”
“Kishida, in his political program, embraced [former Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ agenda, which drives America’s strategy in Asia, “he said.” This is a sign that the United States and Japan can move forward on various fronts . “
When asked to rate the election result on a scale of 10, with 10 being the most favorable, SzÃ©chenyi gave an 8. âThe other two are really about the upper house elections next year,â a- he declared.
âIf the government gets to the upper house, then I think Japan’s foreign policy trajectory will be very predictable for years to come. And that’s reassuring for the United States,â Szechenyi said.
In a comment released Monday by CSIS, Szechenyi and fellow analysts Michael Green and Yuko Nakano wrote that “for now Kishida has gained momentum, but with another big test around the corner,” noting the upper house elections of 2022, after which he would not want to hold elections for another three years.
Hudson’s Cronin also highlighted the poor performance of the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, which lost seats when it is expected to make big gains. This is in part attributed to the choice of CDP leader Yukio Edano to join forces with other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party – which officially opposes the alliance with the United States – to have a single opposition candidate in several districts to increase the chances of victory. .
âThe US-Japan alliance is, for now, the only choice and the alternatives are not as attractive,â Cronin said.
âAs far as we can see, it looks like this is the best option and Japan really needs the alliance to work, for its interests and for the interests of the region,â he said.