Govt to step up discussions on defense budget increase

Pool photo / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida inspects Ground Self-Defense Force equipment at Camp Asaka, which straddles the border of Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture, in November last year.

The government and ruling parties plan to begin full-scale discussions to boost the country’s defense budget in the next fiscal year and beyond, after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told U.S. President Joe Biden during the pair’s summit in Tokyo on Monday that Japan will secure “a substantial increase” in its defense budget.

The majority of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers have called for a fundamental expansion of the defense budget, but the cautious stance of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, as well as fiscal constraints, may impede the move.

LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi expressed his support for Kishida’s resolve to increase the defense budget. “It is extremely important to develop a defense system that can respond to the severe security environment,” Motegi said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Japan’s defense budget for the current fiscal year stands at ¥5.4 trillion, or 0.96% of gross domestic product, which is about half of the 2% target that NATO member countries set for themselves.

Calls have been growing within the LDP to raise defense spending following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is spearheading the discussions on the defense budget increase. He was the first to insist on greater defense expenditures, saying, “We must make efforts to move toward 2%.”

On an internet program on Friday, he said the Self-Defense Forces do not have a sustainable combat capability and that their equipment, ranging from machine gun rounds to SM-3 interceptor missiles, “cannot be said to be sufficient.”

Following Kishida’s remarks on the defense budget increase on Monday, Abe called for an increase of more than ¥1 trillion for next fiscal year, aiming for a budget above ¥6.5 trillion.

Japan’s defense spending has grown by only about ¥700 billion over the past 10 years. As China has become increasingly active in its maritime expansion, the government has instead raised the much smaller budget for the Japan Coast Guard, which is connected to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Calls have emerged within the Defense Ministry for more ammunition and missiles, and improvement of SDF facilities in addition to the reinforcement of “mainstay defense equipment” such as tanks. “This is a good opportunity to allocate funds to areas that have previously been left behind,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.

However, in order to achieve a target of “2% within five years,” an increase of nearly ¥1 trillion will be needed each year.

Komeito, which calls itself the “party of peace,” is cautious about a large increase in defense spending. “We take the prime minister’s determination seriously,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said at a press conference on Tuesday. However, he also said, “How much of an increase is appropriate is something we will consider during our discussions on defense capabilities.”

How to secure financial resources is another unavoidable issue.

A senior Finance Ministry official said, “It’s fine to increase [defense spending], but in which other areas should we make cuts?” Coordination in boosting defense expenditures may face difficulties as the financial issue could lead to discussions on slashing social security spending, which accounts for one-third of the country’s budget.