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Editorial: Massive defense spending boost reveals fading presence of Japan PM Kishida

Defense and state finances are two core policy areas for any nation, and it is dangerous that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is deciding on what direction to take them in without clearly enunciating his own thinking on them.

    The Cabinet recently approved the Kishida administration's first basic fiscal policy guidelines for steering the country. Under the plans, the defense budget is set to be enlarged within the next five years -- a shift that had not been in the basic policy's original draft but was added following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The statement that "North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries are aiming to spend 2% or more of their gross domestic product (GDP)" on defense, originally just a notation on the basic policy, was also promoted to the main text.

    All this suggests a desire to double Japan's defense spending, which has hitherto hovered around 1% of GDP, within five years. The basic policy's original draft was amended this way due to pressure from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other ruling party figures.

    It is necessary to consider the development of defense capabilities in response to changes in the security environment. But rather than just focusing on a number, there must also be careful discussion of how increased spending will mesh with Japan's existing defense-only posture. If the basic policy was used to rubber-stamp defense spending increases, it would be a serious problem.

    Meanwhile, the basic policy also fails to specify when Japan is seeking to return its finances to health. The government has said it is aiming to get the country's primary balance back in the black by fiscal 2025. But the Kishida administration has pulled back from the previous commitment to "adhere" to this goal in favor of "working toward" it in the basic policy. This could badly weaken fiscal discipline.

    Behind the move is the aggressive fiscal stance of former Prime Minister Abe and others calling for a major expansion of the budget. This group is advocating for more government bond issues to cover any defense spending increases.

    The national and local governments are in very bad fiscal shape already, with debts totaling 1.2 quadrillion yen (about $9 trillion). Considering Japan's aging population, it is irresponsible to make future generations take on a bloated financial burden.

    This was supposed to be an important moment, a test of Kishida's vision for Japan, but he has failed to demonstrate leadership.

    On defense spending, Kishida told U.S. President Joe Biden that Japan was determined to secure a substantial increase. However, he has not given the public any details, including where the money will come from.

    Kishida has previously called for a fiscally sound Japan, but he has largely towed the line of Abe and the others in the aggressive spending camp in the basic policy. Kishida's banner "new capitalism" is starting to appear a lot like the high-growth oriented "Abenomics" economic policy package championed by the eponymous former prime minister. Kishida's presence is fading.

    If Kishida and his circle are overly conscious of Abe and his faction -- the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's largest -- ahead of the summer House of Councillors election, then they are far too inward-looking. They must show the people of Japan what they seek for the country's future.

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