Japan’s defense spending may prove a key deterrence to China’s regional ambitions, a former State Department official told Fox News Digital.
“[Japan] grew their defense budget 7.8% from fiscal year ‘21 to the current year,” Kevin Maher, a senior advisor at NMV consulting and the former Japan office director at the State Department, told Fox News Digital. “That’s a significant increase, and if they keep that pace up, which is what they’re trying to do … they will become the third-largest defense budget after the U.S. and China, depending on what it is doing at the same time period.”
Japan has maintained a self-defense force since 1954, but Article 9 of the Japanese constitution established that the country cannot maintain a military. What constituted a military versus defense force was not entirely unclear, but the answer was to limit the mission and capabilities.
The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) cannot solve international conflicts through military aggression. Further, the military cannot maintain certain types of weapons such as ballistic missiles, and the country’s experience with the atomic bomb would create a natural reluctance to maintain any nuclear arsenal.
“The Supreme Court in Japan several times has said that every country has an intrinsic right of self-defense,” Maher said. “Therefore, they have self-defense forces.”
“When we did Operation Enduring Freedom after 9/11, the Japanese were able to send ground forces and some logistics, air support to Iraq, but not for combat purposes, only for reconstruction,” he added. “So they’ve evolved.”
But the rising threat of regional agitators such as North Korea and the clear difference in China’s influence has driven debate over changing the nature of Japan’s defense.
China in 2010 cut off Japan from any rare earth exports over a fishing trawler dispute, depriving the nation of critical resources to develop electronics and other modern appliances. China’s more aggressive moves in the region — particularly those concerning the Taiwan Strait and the island itself — have prompted Japan to revisit its military capabilities.
A controversial 2014 vote allowed the government to redefine the meaning of defense in an effort to expand the JSDF’s capabilities by allowing it to defend other allies in cases of war being declared on them. The United States supported the move.
The latest development saw Japan move to approve a significant spike in spending on its defense force: Tokyo plans to double its spending over the next five years to allocate around 2% of the national GDP to defense, which would make it the third-largest military budget in the world behind the U.S. and China.
“They’re at about $4.1 billion a year, and that’s number nine in the world right after Saudi Arabia,” Maher explained. “They have evolved that the biggest change they had this old it’s kind of an esoteric issue.”
“I think that’s if there were a conflict between China and Japan, the Japanese contributions together with the U.S. are very significant.”
Whatever path the country pursues to improve its military standing, it is unlikely to consider nuclear weapons, even in a two-key scenario where the country would hold nuclear weapons for the U.S.
“There’s a lot of discussion in the academic community and some diet [legislature] members within the ruling party, but the government, there is no serious discussion of acquiring a nuclear capability,” Maher stressed.
“Clearly, Japan could produce nuclear weapons,” he continued. “They have the capability. They have a very good nuclear industry here. And they have that they have the capability to technology … but operationally, Japan doesn’t have the strategic depth to make a nuclear capability really useful.”
That strategic depth refers to the ability to absorb a nuclear attack and retaliate after the initial wave — a key part of the “mutually assured destruction” policy between the U.S. and Russia. Both countries have the size and population to absorb that hit, but Japan as a small island nation would suffer proportionally more than its rivals would.
“There are a lot of other areas Japan should be spending its defense budget on other than nuclear weapons,” Maher said.
Peter Aitken is a Fox News Digital reporter with a focus on national and global news.