The Cable

With Historic Defense Spending Boost, Japan Turns Further Away from Pacifism

Pacifism is embedded in modern Japan’s DNA. But rising global threats may force that to change.

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On Thursday, Japan’s cabinet greenlighted a substantial defense spending boost for the fifth year in a row amid simmering tensions with China and an increasingly trigger-happy North Korea. At the same time, Japan’s National Security Council expanded the scope of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) ability to defend allies in times of peace. Together, the moves underscore Tokyo’s shift away from over seven decades of military pacifism since the end of World War II.

The defense spending boost — which allocates funds for new submarines, six more F-35 purchases from the United States, and missile defense upgrades — amounts to over 5 trillion yen, or roughly $44 billion. This comes a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would ramp up Japan’s Coast Guard presence on the Senkaku Islands, a disputed territory that China claims as its own.

Since taking office in 2012, Abe has worked to expand the power and scope of the SDF — a steep uphill political battle in a country culturally committed to pacifism.

Japan hasn’t had a formal military since the end of World War II. The national constitution, brokered under U.S. occupation in 1947, declared Japan would “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Instead, it has the SDF, which mirrors any country’s military, but comes with very strict rules of engagement on when, where, and how to use force. But with World War II long in the history books, and rising geopolitical tensions in its neighborhood, Abe’s government pushed controversial national legislation through the Diet to reinterpret the status of its quasi-military forces in 2015, allowing self-defense forces to aid U.S. and other military allies if they come under attack.

And on Thursday, the SDF got a bit more elbow room to operate. Japan’s National Security Council approved new guidelines to allow the SDF to protect U.S naval forces even during times of peace, according to Asahi Shimbun.

“The deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance will be further strengthened, and the peace and safety of Japan will be secured to a greater degree,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said at a news conference after the announcement.

Japan could be caught in a diplomatic crossfire between its top ally, the United States, and China, especially once U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Trump has started diplomatic spats with China over Taiwan and trade, ratcheting up tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

Tokyo’s decision to give its defense forces more teeth could be meant to cater to the incoming administration. After Trump’s campaign trail remarks that U.S. allies aren’t doing enough to manage their own defense and should pay more for U.S. protection, some experts say Japan is worried about its future relationship with the United States under Trump.

“Many people in Asia think the Americans are unreliable allies,” Temple University professor Jeff Kingston told CNBC in November after Abe and Trump met for the first time. “Trump has reinforced that perception. He has also introduced a lot of uncertainty into diplomacy in a region where there is a lot of tensions, so I think Abe is there to show there is solidarity.”

Photo credit: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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