Japan has announced new defence guidelines under which the country’s defence budget over the next five years will be increased, new weapons platforms purchased from the US, and more funds allotted to new domains of warfare. China and the two Koreas have criticised this increase in defence spending. Among the arguments used are that it goes against Japan’s pacifist constitution and it will concern Asian neighbours and the international community.
Japan is increasing its defence spending modestly for two reasons: first, for self-defence as it feels its security challenges have increased because of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and the military build-up by China which spends four times as much on defence as Japan; second, to meet its US ally’s need for ‘’burden sharing’’. Japan has also been lagging well behind China in new domains of warfare and wants to try to remedy this shortcoming.
Every country should provide adequate means for its defence and Japan, a democracy with enough civilian controls on the military, is gradually trying to achieve this from a relatively low base compared with the China or the US. Pacifism is a virtue so long as it does not prevent a country from acquiring the means for self-defence. Unfortunately, military expansions in northeast Asia, whether by China or Japan, also seem to be fuelled to some extent by action-reaction dynamics, a tragedy of great power politics.
Unlike Korea and China, Southeast Asia is taking Japan’s latest defence decisions more calmly. They have not been surprising because the general expectation has been that Japan would strengthen its military incrementally over the coming years because of the changes in the security environment.
Opinion surveys show that Japan has a good image in Southeast Asia and the governing elites would not object to a responsible Japanese security role in partnership with the US. Memories of Japan’s war-time occupation of Southeast Asia nearly a century ago when Japan was very different and the world around it was very different have been fading.
Daljit Singh is senior research fellow and coordinator, Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This comment first appeared in ISEAS Commentary and can be downloaded at https://bit.ly/2BXyb4h