Ukraine war urges Japan to reinforce its defense

Ukraine war urges Japan to bolster its defense, but Kishida finds it hard to top Abe's drive


20 | 12 | 2022


The successor of the assassinated premier wants to raise the military expense to 2% of GDP and buy hundreds of Tomahawk missiles, but fails to reach consensus on constitutional reform.

In the picture

Shinzo Abe's funeral in July 2022 [Gov. of Japan].

Half a year after the assassination of Shinzo Abe - he had stepped down as prime minister in 2020, but was still leading the push for constitutional change to allow Japan greater military capabilities - the Japanese government continues to take steps toward greater national assertiveness in the face of possible Chinese actions in the Asian environment. The Russia-Ukraine war has further highlighted the tension between China and Taiwan, and that is influencing Japanese public opinion. But reluctance to amend the controversial article 9 of the Constitution remains high, and Premier Kishida lacks the leadership of his predecessor.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has heightened fears of Chinese action against Taiwan, prompting the Japanese government to accelerate its plans to increase the country's defense capabilities. Since the start of the war, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pushed for a more assertive foreign policy, especially on subject defense. In recent days there have been two major announcements: Kishida's commitment to raise the military expense to 2% of GDP (from the current 1%), along the lines of goal set by NATO, of which Japan is not a member, and the Biden Administration's acceptance of selling Tokyo several hundred Wayside Cross Tomahawk missiles. By doubling the defense budget -a purpose to be realized in five years-, Japan would become the third country in the world with the largest military expense , after the United States and China.

But Kishida is not assured of being able to make that leap in military capabilities. From entrance, because it is not clear how he will be able to cover the financial effort involved. According to the government's plans, a quarter of the additional expense would come from an increase in the corporate tax, but that could strain a productive sector recovering from the stress of the pandemic. An excessive fiscal measure could create division within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and even shake the prime minister's own chair.

But Kishida's effort also faces a fundamental difficulty: the lack of political and social consensus on the reform of article 9 of the Constitution, which since the end of World War II has limited Japan's military action at subject . This article imposes the renunciation of war and the use of force as a means of resolving international disputes. In its two points, it states the following:

"article 9. Aspiring sincerely to international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people Withdrawal forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settlement of international disputes. (2) In order to carry out the desire expressed in the preceding paragraph, no land, sea or air forces or other war potential shall hereafter be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state shall not be recognized".

Throughout his eight years in government between 2012 and 2020 (he was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007), Shinzo Abe had as goal widening Japanese sovereignty in this field, first by widening the margin that this text leaves to the Japanese authorities (in 2014 a less taxing interpretation was proceeded to, to allow offensive military action in the event that an ally was attacked), and then by promoting a constitutional reform to amend the controversial article 9. Abe's assassination on July 8, 2022 during an election rally (he had resigned two years earlier for health reasons) left the LDP with weak leadership and in difficulty in carrying out the complicated purpose constitutional reform. Abe was briefly succeeded as prime minister by Yoshihide Suga and in October 2021 Fumio Kishida took over the post position .

Abe's term in office was internationally known for an economic program that had the purpose of reviving Japan's Economics and for the strategy of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which in part took the form of the training of the group Quad. In domestic politics, Abe also stood out for his insistence on changing the article 9, arguing that it was an outdated formulation that makes Japan vulnerable to the military power of nearby countries such as China or the increasingly threatening North Korea. Abe was able to push through legislation allowing Japan's Self-Defense Forces to fight with its allies abroad, but he did not have time to go further, in the face of resistance from the Japanese public.

Without Abe's push, in his first months Kishida could hardly take steps in the right direction; however, the Russia-Ukraine conflict may be changing the public's attitude, as it makes a Chinese attack on Taiwan and even further Chinese expansionism credible. Abe had warned that, because of its proximity and interests in the region, Japan would be dragged in militarily should China invade Taiwan. "A contingency in Taiwan," the slain prime minister had said, "is a contingency in Japan." Kishida committed to that bequest of Abe at the funeral of the former 'premier'.

The adoption of greater military assertiveness remains unpopular, but rejection has been declining. In 2020, 72% of Japanese saw no need for reform of article 9, while 22% advocated it. But in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine, citizens who support Japan having "counter-strike" capabilities now make up 60% of the population, up from 37% two years earlier.

However, reluctance remains high and this is reflected in the lack of a broad political consensus on constitutional reform in Parliament. Japan is not scheduled to hold a general election until 2025, so the governing party has almost three years to try to reach a agreement on the matter, with the handicap, however, of a leave popularity of Kishida (23%). The LDP has proposed retaining the first clause of the disputed article, whereby Japan cedes its sovereign right to engage in war and Withdrawal to the threat of the use of force as a means of resolving international disputes. plenary session of the Executive Council In the second clause, it would like to introduce a more precise and legitimizing definition of the role of the Self-Defense Forces, in order to end the debates on the limits and constitutionality of these forces and allow their members to exercise their functions with pride.

In its desire for constitutional reform, the LDP is in talks with three minor parties which support some subject of modification, although they do not fully agree on the most controversial issues. The four parties have supermajorities in both houses of Parliament, but a consensus that does not include the main opposition group , the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), which has rejected the initiatives promoted in this sense by Abe, could detract from the popular acceptance of the new text. This has caused some LDP cadres to doubt about the convenience of forcing the reform.

The war in Ukraine has raised scenarios that in many respects were not thought possible. Any hostile move by China in its Asian environment could shake Japanese society. However, the majority of the population still does not welcome an effective constitutional change, fearing that it would open the door to militarism. The Constitution itself, in its article 96, imposes barriers to its reform, adding difficulties in its purpose to Abe's successor.