It has become necessary to review Japan's stance on national defense in response to changes in the security environment around the country. But it is questionable whether the government has made sufficient efforts to share its perception about those objective circumstances with the Japanese people.
The National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-term Defense Program for fiscal 2019 and beyond were approved by the Cabinet. It is the second time that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has updated the defense guidelines.
The administration waited only five years to update the grand design of the nation's defense, which has traditionally been set for around a 10-year period. The government explains that the haste is because "the seriousness and uncertainty (of the national security environment) are growing at a far faster pace than expected."
There is no question that threats from China's military expansion and North Korea's nuclear and missile programs have intensified substantially during the five-year period. Now it is required to plan for attacks on satellites in space or destructive cyber assaults on information networks, as science and technology advance.
The defense guidelines therefore introduced a new concept of "multidimensional integrated defense" capable of countering space, cyberspace and electromagnetic threats, on top of conventional military spheres of air, land and sea defense.
Concrete programs for preparing units and equipment for those new threats, such as the establishment of a space force, are set to be worked out down the road, but we can understand the basic direction the government is heading.
But Japan's basic policy has been focused on self-defense based on Article 9 of the Constitution that renounces war and bans the possession of war potential. Some of the major programs incorporated in the new guidelines raise questions regarding their compatibility with this traditional stance.
One example is the upgrading of the Izumo-class helicopter carriers into vessels with aircraft carrier capabilities. The plan calls for improving the deck to enable the deployment of fighter jets capable of short-distance takeoff and vertical landings.
Under the current government interpretation of the supreme law, possessing "attack aircraft carriers" is considered to be against the focus on self-defense. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the argument that aircraft carriers are desirable to defend the East China Sea and remote islands in the Pacific because China has deployed its carriers to these regions. The implementation of the defense-only policy can change depending on the form of threat.
However, we think that it is tantamount to deceiving the public for the government to insinuate that the upgraded ships will not qualify as aircraft carriers because they will mostly carry antisubmarine warfare choppers and jet fighters will only be deployed when necessary.
The same evaluation goes for the long-range cruise missiles being introduced using the budget for the current fiscal year without waiting for the inclusion to the new defense guidelines. The government will now develop long-range missiles under the new plan. Officials explain that those missiles are needed to protect remote islands, but the weapons can also be used to attack enemy bases in other countries.
Developing such a capability was pushed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for inclusion in the defense guidelines, but it was called off. The party's apparent intention is to go ahead anyway with the acquisition of necessary equipment under different justifications, without triggering a barrage of criticism by officially announcing a controversial procurement plan.
Factors determining the appropriate level of defense capability for a democratic country include the legal system based on the Constitution, the national security environment, economic power and diplomatic prowess, but an absolute condition is the understanding of the people.
Reviewing the country's stance on national defense must be accompanied by careful, detailed explanations to the public and thorough discussions in the Diet, but those efforts seem to have been skipped. Avoiding discussions on the legal foundation of national defense and changing it without proper review is far from acceptable.
--- Consideration for U.S. making defense outlays untouchable
Another factor changing Japan's policy of focusing on self-defense is the decline of the U.S. presence with the emergence of new powers including China. Under the traditional Japan-U.S. alliance, Japan has focused on making and maintaining a shield to protect itself, and deferred the role of counterattacking adversaries to the United States. But the U.S. has demanded a review of this burden-sharing arrangement, and the pressure is intensifying since President Donald Trump came to power in 2017.
In an apparent response to this pressure from President Trump, who is determined to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Tokyo, Japan is paying far more than 1 trillion yen to buy 105 U.S.-developed F-35 fighter jets, including 42 F-35Bs that can be deployed on aircraft carriers. The government has also decided to approve the introduction of the Aegis Ashore ground-based missile defense system.
We suspect that the government revised the defense guidelines so that those huge defense outlays can be justified.
As a result, the traditional posture of seeking defense buildup with moderation, reflected in past guidelines, has disappeared, and the estimated five-year defense spending from fiscal 2019 has ballooned to 27.47 trillion yen, nearly 3 trillion yen more than the current plan.
The government intends to curb the growth in defense expenditures by introducing long-term payments in installments for defense equipment, but this means that we are sending the bill to future generations. Japan already faces lower birthrates and the graying of society, conditions that produce a heavier budgetary burden on the Japanese people and trigger cutbacks on social security spending. Under these circumstances, the defense budget must not escape reductions.