As 2022 wrapped up, the Japanese government let forth a flurry of defense policy announcements. Those were followed by a five-nation tour by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and talk of a tax hike to pay for it all. Gabriel Dominguez joins the podcast this week to try to help us make sense of it all.

Hosted by Jason Jenkins and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Jason Jenkins 00:09

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deep Dive from The Japan Times. This is Jason Jenkins. January was a very busy month for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and a lot of it had to do with the changing role of Japan’s military in the Indo-Pacific region. Now if defense and geopolitics aren’t your thing I still hope you stick around and listen because there are some really important changes happening right now; things that will affect global politics, regional relationships and for some of us, many of us living in Japan, it may end up hitting us in the wallet as well. With the next G7 summit set to take place in Hiroshima, Japan is setting the stage for a pivot in its relationship with Western allies. But questions about a reinvigorated Japanese military — how to fund it and how to even staff it — well, these questions remain unanswered. Gabrielle Dominguez covers defense for the Japan Times, and in this episode, we discuss Japan’s changing role in the region and how that might affect you. 

Hey Gabriel, thanks for coming back on the show.

Gabriel Dominguez  01:16  

Thanks for having me.

Jason Jenkins  01:17  

There’ve been some really significant changes in Japan's defense policy over the last few months, not only Japan, across Asia, far beyond that, and far more than we could ever cover in one episode. So, let's focus specifically on Japan's recent actions and why they matter. So what's changed in Japan's approach to defense?

Gabriel Dominguez  01:38  

Thanks for the question. So, in my view, over the past couple of weeks, we have seen what I regard as an extraordinary set of events. These events have taken place mainly in terms of the security defense policies coming out of Tokyo. Two things stand out here. One is Japan's revision of three key security documents. This is a move that will see Tokyo not only drastically increase defense spending, but also by weapons that are capable of striking bases, air and command and control centers in enemy territory. So the second relates to what Tokyo is doing to rally external support. So this is not only to protect Japan, but also its interests in the Asia Pacific. We're talking here about efforts to strengthen Japan's alliance with the United States and ramp up American capabilities in the country. At the same time, this is about Prime Minister Kishida traveling to countries around the world to deepen defense ties and garner as much international support as possible for Tokyo's free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.

Jason Jenkins  02:37  

Right, right, right. Well, definitely touch on Kishida’s diplomatic tour.

Gabriel Dominguez   02:41

So the reasons for this are Tokyo's growing concerns that it is facing an increasingly assertive China and belligerent North Korea. So as a result, the government in Tokyo feels it should do more to share the security burden in the region, particularly as it fears that a crisis similar to what we're seeing now in Ukraine could also emerge in Asia, possibly over Taiwan.

Jason Jenkins  03:04  

Right, right. Right. OK, let's stop right there with us, because this is plenty to work with. Let's start with the defense papers. What exactly changed? And why is it such a big deal?

Gabriel Dominguez  03:14  

Well, Japan has three key security documents called the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Program, and they essentially outline the country's basic defense policy and future direction. So they also relate to defense spending and procurement plans. And I think one of the key takeaways is that Tokyo seems ready to shed some of its postwar constraints, if you like, on its military.

Jason Jenkins  03:40  

When you say constraints here, you're talking about constraints that have been there since World War II.

Gabriel Dominguez  03:45  

Yes, that's right. And this is not entirely new, though. It's more like an evolution of how Tokyo has been approaching defense issues ever since the administration of late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But what's different now is that these changes are now official government policy. 

Jason Jenkins 04:00

Unpack that for us. 

Gabriel Dominguez 04:02

OK, so some of the key plans include a massive jump in defense spending.

Jason Jenkins  04:06 

How big are we talking?

Gabriel Dominguez   04:07  

Well, right now Japan spends little over 1% of GDP on defense, this plan would almost double that … so, to about 2% of GDP.

Jason Jenkins  04:17  

So about the same as countries in NATO. Well, many of them anyway.

Gabriel Dominguez   04:21  

Right. So more concretely, these translate to roughly $350 billion on defense spending over the next five years, starting from fiscal 2023. That is a lot of money. And there's still debate within the government as to how to fund it. 

Jason Jenkins 04:36

What would the money be used for? 

Gabriel Dominquez 04:38

Well, I've listed several things. This includes new weapons and systems, deploy more troops providing better medical facilities, increasing munition stockpiles, strengthening both civilian and military facilities, and last but not least reinforcing missile and electronic warfare units. But perhaps the most important thing is the procurement of long-range weapons, which is what the government calls “counterstrike capabilities.”

Jason Jenkins  05:03  

“Counterstrike capabilities?” 

Gabriel Dominguez   05:05  

Yeah, so, a “counterstrike capability” means that Japan can strike enemy targets using long-range weapons if the situation requires it. We're talking here about plans to buy hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States and extend the range of the country's type-12 anti-ship missiles.

Jason Jenkins  05:23  

And all of this is written into Japan's defense documents now.

Gabriel Dominguez  05:27   

Well, the documents speak generally of standoff weapons, including ground- and ship-launched versions. However, the exact types were later clarified by Tokyo in a briefing from the Defense Ministry. It's important to note here that the documents refer to China as posing, quote, unquote, “the greatest-ever strategic challenge” to Japan. So this is an important change, as Tokyo has traditionally been cautious with the language used to describe security threats and official documents. In my personal view, this indicates that the government is increasingly viewing Beijing as a danger.

Jason Jenkins  06:02 

I see. I see. And so this is why the Taiwan Strait is brought up so much.

Gabriel Dominguez  6:07 

Exactly. So a key aspect of the military buildup is to reinforce the defense of Japan's Southwestern islands, particularly those closest to Taiwan.

Jason Jenkins  06:17  

And of course, of course, because that's really the flashpoint everybody's worried about, right? Japan, southern islands really could end up being the front line if things went south between China and Taiwan.

Gabriel Dominguez   06:26 

Yeah, that's right. So in particular, Tokyo wants to increase combat resilience and survivability in this area. So basically, we're talking about reinforcing facilities, we're talking about better equipment, we're talking about better denial capabilities. So as a result, it was to improve its missile arsenal to try and prevent Chinese warships and aircraft from operating anywhere near Taiwan. In my view, all of this indicates that Japan is not only seeking to deter China, but he's also preparing for the worst-case scenario, which would be a potential Taiwan contingency should these deterrence efforts fail.

Jason Jenkins  07:03  

I want to circle back to the term counterstrike capabilities a little more, could you explain that a little more about what that is, and what's so controversial about it?

Gabriel Dominguez   07:13 

Sure. So essentially, these are standoff weapons, they have long range, that means you can strike enemy targets from far away. And by doing so you increase the survivability of your military assets. So let's say you have an aircraft, you've launched that missile, and that can strike an enemy ship, but enemy aircraft or an enemy base from you know, 1,000 miles away, and that enables the F-15 to survive, as it's so far away from what it's actually intended to strike. 

Jason Jenkins 07:42

Is everyone on board with this?

Gabriel Dominguez  07:44

Well, critics have called it a possible violation of Japan's exclusively defense-oriented posture under Article 9 of the Constitution. However, the government argues that using these weapons is constitutional, so long as three conditions are met: First, that an armed attack has already occurred or is imminent. Second, that there is no other way to hold an attack. And third, that the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.

Jason Jenkins  08:13  

What other countries have this counterstrike capability?

Gabriel Dominguez   08:16

Well, given that a counterstrike capability is just a long range weapon, then pretty much everyone in the region has it. So the South Koreans have it, the Chinese have it, and the North Koreans have it, the Australians have it. So they're very few countries that don't have it. Of course, the Americans have it, but they haven't deployed them to the region yet. And if you take a look at NATO countries, then most of them would also have some sort of long range weapon capability. So in that sense, Japan would not by any means be an exception.

Jason Jenkins  08:54

OK, now tell us about the prime minister's recent world tour. What was he doing?

Gabriel Dominguez    08:59

So first of all, I think it's important to note here that Japan does not stand alone and its concerns over China and North Korea. And so this is why the prime minister has been trying to strengthen defense cooperation, and present a more united front to deter conflict in the region. To do this, he wants to expand Japan's array of security partners across the globe. And the best way to do this is through face-to-face meetings, which is why he has to travel more and more.

Jason Jenkins  09:26  

And for our listeners, if you didn't know, last month Kishida did just that he traveled to five of the G7 countries: France, Italy, the U.K., Canada and the United States.

Gabriel Dominguez    09:35  

Yes, so Kishida chose these countries, mainly because of Japan's plans to host a key G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

Jason Jenkins  09:43  

These are all short visits, of course, they covered a lot of issues. So just stick with the security aspects of these meetings, please.

Gabriel Dominguez  09:51  

Sure. So overall, one can say that Kishida made this trip so that he could meet these leaders in person and explain the changes made to Japan's national security documents. This is important not only because these are key partners of Japan, but also because most of them have been developing their own Indo-Pacific strategies. Kishida’s key message here is that what happens in one part of the world will affect relations in another. He argues that this demands closer ties among like-minded nations to keep the peace and to protect the rules-based order. In fact, during his first stop in France, Kishida even said that the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific are, quote, unquote, inseparable. 

Jason Jenkins  10:36

How so? 

Gabriel Dominguez   10:38

Well, the thinking behind it is that events in Asia can affect people's lives elsewhere, and vice versa, just like events in Ukraine could affect people's lives in Asia, given how interconnected and how interdependent today's world has become.

Jason Jenkins  10:52  

With the Ukraine crisis, just the supply chains alone, did a number on the entire globe. But back to Paris. 

Gabriel Dominguez   10:58  

Yeah. So in Paris, Kishida and French President Macron also decided to launch a dialogue process among the two country's top foreign policy and defense officials. 

Jason Jenkins 11:07 

We refer to those as the “two plus two” meetings. You mean? 

Gabriel Dominguez 11:10

Yeah, that's right. So they agreed on the two plus two and they also decided to work together more closely, and matters related to the Indo-Pacific. And then from there, he went to Rome, where Kishida met the Italian Premier Maloney when they both agreed to elevate their country's relationship to a strategic partnership, as well as a whole consultations between foreign policy and defense officials. Then Kishida traveled to the U.K., where he met with British Prime Minister Sunak and they signed a landmark defense agreement that allows both countries to deploy forces on each other's soil. This is a deal that is similar to that, that Japan signed with Australia last year. This is important because the move will allow closer defense cooperation between the two countries, particularly if they engage in more exercises.

Jason Jenkins  12:01  

And this is where the fighter jets come in. Right?

Gabriel Dominguez  12:04 

Well, the fighter jet deal had been arranged a month earlier. So last December, Italy, the U.K. and Japan agreed to develop a next-generation fighter aircraft by 2035. This is relevant as it is Japan's first defense equipment development project with any other country other than the U.S. 

Jason Jenkins 12:23

OK, now back to the tour. 

Gabriel Dominguez 12:24

So after the U.K., Kishida went to Ottawa in Canada to meet with Prime Minister Trudeau, and discuss regional concerns, before then meeting U.S. President Biden in Washington the following day. So this was a very important meeting, of course, given the depth of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance. And in this context, Biden's endorsement of Japan's defense policy overhaul was key. The meeting between the two leaders also highlighted that they are essentially in lockstep, particularly when it comes to security issues. In my view, it's important to know that the Kishida-Biden meeting had been preceded by a meeting between the country's top defense and foreign policy officials. So there was a, in other words, a two plus two before Kishida landed in Washington. And during this meeting, the two countries had already agreed to enhance security coordination and beef up U.S. military capabilities in Japan, southwestern islands, those that are near Taiwan. So this includes more exercises and cooperation between Japanese and U.S. troops. This includes reorganizing a more capable Marine Corps unit, and also more and better anti-ship missile capabilities in that area in the southwestern islands.

Jason Jenkins  13:39  

So why all these changes and why now?

Gabriel Dominguez  13:42  

So the main argument behind the defense policy changes is that Japan's neighborhood is changing. Essentially, you have a security environment becoming increasingly severe. And this includes China's rapid but still ongoing military modernization, as well as increased assertiveness in territorial disputes

Jason Jenkins 14:04

Ah, territorial disputes, you're talking to Taiwan.

Gabriel Dominguez 14:06

Sure, Taiwan, but we also have the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing and other territories in the South China Sea, as well as the border issue with India. And then there's North Korea, of course, which last year tested a record number of missiles, including one over Japan, and well, North Korea, as we know, threatened to deploy tactical nuclear weapons if provoked. And South Korea is also thinking about a change in its defense strategy. I mean, South Korea has been cooperating with the United States and Japan more closely recently, ever since the administration of President Yoon, but Seoul has also begun considering bringing U.S. nuclear weapons back into the region, or even developing their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea. And last but not least, there's Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has arguably raised the biggest concerns in Tokyo.

Jason Jenkins  15:03  

The biggest concerns … Why, why Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

Gabriel Dominguez  15:06  

Well, for one, the war in Ukraine has been used by the government as a great metaphor for China and Taiwan. In fact, yeah, in fact, one of the main warnings repeated by Prime Minister Kishida is that a crisis similar to the invasion of Ukraine could occur here in Asia, possibly over Taiwan. I think, however, at this stage, it's important to emphasize that while there's little doubt that China hopes to annex Taiwan at some point, questions remain about the time and methods that Beijing might use, including whether the Communist Party is seriously contemplating abandoning its peaceful unification strategy. That said, speculation has grown that China is accelerating its plans for an invasion. And we can see it every day in the news, Beijing keeps sending warships and aircraft around Taiwan to intimidate Taipei. What this means is that there's the possibility of an accident escalating into a confrontation. Unfortunately, this has become increasingly plausible, as all sides, Japan, the United States, China and others, intensify military operations in this area.

Jason Jenkins  16:14  

In this area, right. So for listeners who don't live in Japan, or maybe you're not as familiar with the geography, that is our neighborhood: China, Russia, the Koreas, Taiwan, they're all very close, right?

Gabriel Dominguez  16:25  

Yes. In fact, some of the southernmost Japanese islands are right next to Taiwan. So you also have Russia, which is right next door to Hokkaido. Both Tokyo and Moscow have been in a dispute over a series of islands in an area since the end of World War II.

Jason Jenkins  16:40  

Yes, they have. I'm going to pause for a minute and I want to talk about the relationship. You know, I've read and you've written about how the relationships between Japan and these countries have deepened. What was it like before? And what will it be like now? How could you explain the difference?

Gabriel Dominguez 16:58

Well, I think with the exception of the United States, these countries — we're talking here about Britain, Germany, France — mostly G7 countries. They're simply coordinating their security policies related to the Indo-Pacific more closely with the United States, and especially with Japan. They're also trying to find ways to work more closely together, as they see that there is this potential situation — threat — posed by China assertiveness, so they want to do this, be it through more joint military exercises, deploying military assets to the region, or just closer defense industrial cooperation. And in the past, well, simply put, there was just far less of that.

Jason Jenkins  17:40  

Aside from the neighbors. Are there any other reasons for the budget hike?

Gabriel Dominguez  17:45  

Well, besides constitutional constraints, another reason has been the traditional role within the U.S.-Japan alliance. So Washington has traditionally fulfilled the role of the “sword,” meaning offensive operations. While Tokyo has played the role of the “shield,” meaning defense. This has allowed Tokyo to limit defense spending. However, with last month's defense papers coming out, Japan is now telling the world and especially the United States that it's willing to play a bigger role in the alliance and with more responsibility also comes the need for greater funding.

Jason Jenkins  18:31  

All right now to the big question, at least for those of us who live in Japan: how does Prime Minister Kishida plan to pay for all of this?

Gabriel Dominguez  18:41  

Well, that's not entirely clear. But it seems that the ruling coalition is aiming for a mix of measures, including bonds and raising taxes.

Jason Jenkins  18:51  

And how popular is this defense budget hike?

Gabriel Dominguez  18:54 

Well, I think many people are supportive of strengthening the Self-Defense Forces, but people have been somewhat less enthusiastic about financing the budget, or the budget hike through tax increases. According to a recent Jiji public opinion survey, about half of respondents oppose a tax increase for defense spending, with less than 25% in favor.

Jason Jenkins  19:16  

But that's how it will be paid for right, with taxes?

Gabriel Dominguez  19:19  

Some groups are proposing a consumption tax while others plan to do it through government bonds. But like I said, that hasn't been decided yet.

Jason Jenkins  19:26 

OK, so raising the defense budget, higher taxes. These are not the things that politicians use to win popularity contests. How has this affected his approval ratings?

Gabriel Dominguez  19:38  

Well, I think that this alongside inflation has clearly affected the government's popularity. According to the same poll, the Kishida cabinet's approval rating has dropped to 26.5% I mean, that's the lowest since he took office in October 2021.This also marks the fourth straight month with an approval rating below 30%, which is considered to be the danger zone.

Jason Jenkins  20:03  

The defense budget is how to pay for it. But there's another issue with a growing military and that's how to staff it. You recently wrote a piece looking into these challenges of actually staffing the military. How would this propose a challenge for Japan?

Gabriel Dominguez  20:19  

Well, it's a big challenge. I think the situation is complex. And these personnel shortages are likely to undermine the planned military buildup. The government is aware that, especially the Ministry of Defense, that they need more servicemen and women, and they have been trying different measures to approach this perennial issue. These measures include more advertising campaigns, improving living conditions for personnel,  raising the maximum enlistment age, and creating a better work-life balance. However, the SDF continues to struggle with Japan's falling birth rate. And more importantly, in my opinion, is the increased competition with the private sector over what is already a shrinking pool of applicants.

Jason Jenkins  21:06  

Explain that. What do you mean by competition from the private sector?

Gabriel Dominguez  21:10  

Well, the thing is that not only is Japan struggling with the issue that there are fewer and fewer babies, you also have a young population that is pretty much in an economic situation where they have opportunities for more and more jobs. So why would they actually decide to take on a job in the military? The experts that I have spoken to say that there is still little information out there to convince a young college graduate that joining the SDF is better than getting a job at say, Toyota or Sony.

Jason Jenkins  21:42  

Sure, sure. That makes sense. Company jobs have a better salary usually come with some benefits. And of course, there's that nice fact that you don't get shot at.

Gabriel Dominguez  21:50  

True. Hiring more women and developing equipment that requires less manpower are other strategies that are being implemented by the Ministry of Defense. However, in my opinion, this will remain an uphill battle, particularly trying to make the job of a soldier more appealing to a smaller pool of young people.

Jason Jenkins  22:10  

But with all this talk about peace in the Indo-Pacific and the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, exactly what kind of role is Japan supposed to play?

Gabriel Dominguez  22:21 

Well, in my analysis, I focused more on the possibility of a Taiwan contingency. While in both cases, Japan could play a significant role. I think that at its most crucial part would be in a war over Taiwan. So much so that there are doubts as to whether the U.S. could effectively defend Taiwan without at least some kind of support from Tokyo. I think of utmost importance for Washington is Tokyo’s permission to conduct operations from existing bases in Japan. There have been different scenarios here simulating war games, one of which sees Japan limited itself to the defensive role, while U.S. forces would conduct offensive air, naval and amphibious operations to support Taiwan. However, experts also fear that such a position would be difficult to maintain for Tokyo, as China would probably want to neutralize U.S. operations from Japan. Given the threat that U.S. airpower, specifically, would pose to Chinese assets in the region. At the same time, and this is where it gets tricky, an attack on Japan — so if China were to attack us and Japanese bases in Japan — this would provide a legal rationale for Tokyo to conduct offensive operations against China. And according to a recent wargame by the Center for Strategic International Studies, Japan’s participation in a contingency, be it defensive or offensive role, would be crucial. However, there was barely any scenario and this is important for all listeners to understand, there is barely any scenario in these war games, where the war was won without all parties incurring heavy losses.

Jason Jenkins  24:02  

Which begs the question, will Japan be ready for an actual contingency?

Gabriel Dominguez 24:07

I think most experts agree that Japan has well-equipped forces. I mean, they have the ninth-largest defense spending in the world, despite the fact that they only currently spend about 1% of GDP on defense. But the SDF are probably not ready yet to engage in a conflict of the magnitude of engaging against a superpower such as China. This is also why the national security documents that were released last month call for increases in aspects such as resilience, mobility and survivability of the SDF, as well as enhancing capabilities in cyber and space, which are the latest domains of military warfare. Of key importance would also be the long-range weapons being sought by Japan, the so-called counterstrike capabilities, because this would help Tokyo prevent China from acquiring air and naval superiority around Taiwan. And also, if necessary, the possibility to strike targets on the Chinese mainland if required.

Jason Jenkins  25:06  

So I have a better picture of the defense policy now. But um, I have to ask, you know, from the other side, you know, I hear lots of reasons for raising the defense budget even raising taxes to pay for it, but um, what's the counter argument? Surely not everyone is keen to rebuild the military.

Gabriel Dominguez  25:25  

In my view, while the SDF had been viewed with suspicion in the postwar period, the Japanese military is widely regarded in a different light today. Many see it as a useful institution, particularly its numerous disaster-relief activities, including the SDF response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. However, and this is a big however, a key reason for this is that many still view the SDF’s main task is responding to natural disasters and not national defense. So it's unclear to me whether the vast majority of Japanese would be ready to support an SDF that would potentially engage in active warfare against a neighboring country. In my opinion, this still remains to be seen.

Jason Jenkins  26:14  

Wow, OK. Gabriel, as always, thanks for coming back on the show and enlightening us and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Gabriel Dominguez  26:23  

Sure. Thanks for having me.

Jason Jenkins 26:29 

Thanks again to Gabriel Dominguez for coming in and talking defense and the impacts it may have. If you’d like to read more of Gabriel’s work or learn more about Japan’s new role in regional defense, you can find links in the show notes.  Also in the Japan Times this week:

Jesse Johnson describes the steps Japan and South Korea are taking to improve their rocky diplomatic relationship. Mark Schilling reveals how Japanese films will dominate domestic cinemas in 2023. And Kanako Takahara explains what changes when Japan reclassifies COVID-19 to a lower, less-dangerous level. Finally, Dan Rosen writes a special obituary for Angela Jeffs, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, who passed away in November. She was 81.

For these stories and thousands more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times. This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd. See you next week! And podtsukaresama!