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Kishida's move to raise Japan's defense budget a bid to regain control amid low approval

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is seen ahead of a Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on Nov. 29, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's latest move to instruct related ministers to increase Japan's defense budget to 2% of its gross domestic product in fiscal 2027 has been hailed by his colleagues within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), especially those in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's faction. However, a bumpy road is expected as conflict still remains between the government and ruling coalition over how to secure resources for a budget increase.

    Taku Otsuka, a House of Representatives member who heads the Abe faction's security and defense project team, welcomed Kishida's move, telling reporters, "It's a big step forward," in the Diet building on Nov. 29. The LDP's defense lobby lawmakers, too, praised Kishida, with the party's security research commission chairman Itsunori Onodera commenting, "It's of importance that a clear instruction has been given by the prime minister."

    Late former Prime Minister Abe led efforts to strengthen Japan's defense capabilities and an expansionist fiscal policy within the Kishida administration. In response to Abe's death, many of the LDP's conservative force and lawmakers in the Abe faction demanded a defense budget increase to 2% of GDP under the slogan of inheriting the slain former prime minister's wishes.

    Regarding the defense budget, the Ministry of Finance, placing importance on fiscal discipline, has insisted that an increase cannot be approved unless resources are secured. It was an offensive performance by the Finance Ministry, which had been pressured by Abe, to set up an expert committee "to study defense capabilities comprehensively as national power" within the prime minister's office in late September to regain lost ground. On Nov. 22, the panel submitted a report to Kishida suggesting a tax hike, claiming that "Japanese people as a whole needed to shoulder the burden" to secure stable resources for the defense budget.

    While it may appear that the Finance Ministry is leading the discussion over the defense budget between the government and ruling coalition, "the resignation dominos" where three Cabinet members -- former economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, ex-Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi and former internal affairs minister Minoru Terada -- were forced to step down one after another within a span of one month through Nov. 21 have cast a shadow over the government. They dealt yet another blow to Prime Minister Kishida, whose Cabinet's approval rating remains low following issues involving the Unification Church (now officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification) and the LDP's supposed deep ties with the controversial religious group.

    Amid a lack of positive material to bolster the government's influence or image, Kishida opted to show understanding to the voices within his own party to recover his unifying force by instructing the defense budget increase. Kishida made moves himself to build consensus with an objective to highlight his political leadership and met with party executives between Nov. 23 and 28, including LDP Vice-President Taro Aso, Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi and Policy Research Council Chairman Koichi Hagiuda. An aide told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The discussion was almost entirely about the defense budget."

    When he instructed Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki to raise the defense budget to 2% of GDP on Nov. 28, Kishida stressed his proactive stance on a budget hike, telling them, "We won't say we can't do it because we don't have resources, but we'll secure the necessary items in a prompt manner upon coming up with various creative ways."

    During the LDP's in-house meeting on Nov. 29, the government's expert panel which proposed the tax hike to secure budget increase resources became the target of fierce criticism. As arguments for covering the budget increase by issuing government bonds are gaining momentum within the LDP, Hiroshige Seko, secretary-general of the LDP caucus in the House of Councillors and an Abe faction member, told a recent news conference, "It's one way to temporarily finance (the defense budget hike) with government bond issuances until we have prospects for resources."

    The defense budget increase will be reflected in the planned revisions to Japan's three defense-related papers, including the National Security Strategy, slated for the end of the year, and the draft budget for fiscal 2023. Kishida on Nov. 28 suggested his plan to decide on how to secure resources for the defense budget hike at year-end, meaning that the tug-of-war between the government and ruling coalition could escalate.

    (Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi and Itsuo Tokubo, Political News Department)

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