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Editorial: Japan PM's call to up defense spending prioritizes budget's scale over content

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has instructed the Defense Ministry and Finance Ministry to boost Japan's defense-related budgets to 2% of the country's gross domestic product by fiscal 2027.

    The move merely prioritizes the budget's scale over its content. Kishida bears a grave responsibility for failing to appropriately discuss and explain the matter.

    The 1% ceiling set in 1976 has continued to serve as a benchmark for Japan's annual defense spending even after the cap was abolished during the 1980s. As defense outlays in Japan's fiscal 2022 initial budget stand at around 5.4 trillion yen (approx. $39 billion), or 0.96% of its GDP, 2% would double the defense spending to somewhere around 11 trillion yen.

    On top of conventional defense outlays, the Kishida government aims to achieve the 2% quota by combining security-related expenditures including research and development, infrastructure improvement, cybersecurity and international cooperation.

    Yet it is problematic to decide on the budget size without working out the details.

    The 2% benchmark, in the first place, is the defense spending target for NATO member states. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has urged that Japan follow suit, with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being the primary advocate before he was assassinated in July this year.

    Given different geographical conditions, however, defense capabilities necessary for each country and region are different, and a simple comparison is not viable.

    Kishida had heretofore reiterated that he would "finalize the content, budget and fiscal resources in an integral manner," and that "matters that are necessary will be added up," without setting a numerical target in advance. However, he abruptly made a turnaround at this time of the year when the year-end budget compilation is looming.

    It defeats the purpose of defense budget if its scale alone is prioritized over its content. Such a move could bring adverse effects including over-budgeting individual items.

    The Defense Ministry's budget request for fiscal 2023 came in at a record 5.6 trillion yen (approx. $40.4 billion), and this includes numerous items with unspecified costs.

    If the ministry prioritizes adding up budgets with its eyes set on the 2% target in five years from now, it raises concerns that the viewpoints of setting an order of priority for defense equipment and considering cost-effectiveness and cost-saving could be left out.

    Yet the record-high budget request shows no sign of these points having been put under scrutiny.

    Japan's basic principles lie in upholding its exclusively defense-oriented policy in accordance with the post-World War II Constitution, without treading back on a path to become a military power ever again. If the country becomes obsessed with the logic of prioritizing the budget's size, consistency with these principles could be undermined.

    Doubling the national defense budget directly leads to a major shift in Japan's defense policy. It is unacceptable to finalize the budget in the absence of efforts to gain public understanding.

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