Japan calls China ‘unprecedented challenge’, adopts counterstrike capability in sweeping defence revisions

Unthinkable under past administrations, the rapid arming of Japan has the backing of most voters, according to opinion polls. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan labelled China as an “unprecedented and greatest strategic challenge” in a radical overhaul of its security policy on Friday, as it vowed to dramatically raise the defence budget and acquire controversial “counterstrike capabilities”.

These moves would have been unpalatable, if not unthinkable, until recently. But the Japanese public – which voted the character for “battle”, read as sen or ikusa, as the kanji character of 2022 – has been jolted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and heightened military activity in the Asian region.

To fund a slew of new armaments, Japan will ramp up defence spending to 43 trillion yen (S$426.6 billion) for the five-year period ending in fiscal year 2027, up by 56 per cent from 27.5 trillion yen in the current spending plan.  

This will make it the third-largest spender after the United States and China on current budgets, and bring its defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product – blowing past a cap of 1 per cent self-imposed in 1976.

China slammed the policy revisions, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accusing Japan of “disregarding facts, discrediting China, and deviating from the common understanding between China and Japan and its commitment to bilateral relations”.

“Hyping up the ‘China threat’ to find an excuse for its military build-up is doomed to fail,” he said.

Japan’s first revision of its National Security Strategy in nearly a decade came after China sent missiles into waters near Okinawa prefecture in August. North Korea, which Japan referred to as an “even more grave and imminent threat than ever before” in the strategy, sent a missile over Hokkaido in October.

The strategy also labelled Russia as a “strong security concern”, citing the deployment of armaments on disputed territory north of Hokkaido and Moscow’s “doubling down on strategic coordination” with Beijing.

“We conducted a realistic simulation of whether current capabilities held by the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) were sufficient to deter threats and protect the nation,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a news conference on Friday. “Frankly, the current capabilities are insufficient.”

The 10-year National Defence Strategy and the five-year defence build-up programme were also revised on Friday, with Mr Kishida warning that Japan must act with urgency.

“Japan’s security environment is as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of World War II... In the vicinity of Japan, military build-ups, including of nuclear weapons and missiles, are rapidly advancing, coupled with mounting pressures by unilaterally changing the status quo by force,” the documents said, in clear reference to North Korea and China’s stance on Taiwan.

Among the measures considered necessary as a deterrent was the “counterstrike capability” that will allow the SDF to launch targeted strikes on enemy bases if Japan’s survival is endangered.

This marks a turning point, given the pacifist post-war Constitution enacted in 1947, with a previous defence policy indicating that Japan will “not have the means to attack an opponent country”.

But Mr Kishida said there was no contradiction, given that Japan will keep its exclusively defence-oriented posture and use such counterstrike capabilities only under the strictest of standards and as a matter of last resort.

“As a peace-loving nation, Japan will adhere to the basic policy of maintaining an exclusively national defence-oriented policy, not becoming a military power that poses a threat to other countries,” he said.

To do so, it will develop its own range of hypersonic missiles and may purchase as many as 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles made by its security ally, the United States.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, calling the changes “bold and historic”, said that Japan’s revised defence policy will “strengthen and modernise the US-Japan alliance”.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said the policy demonstrates a “high level of concern” towards the self-ruled democratic island, which China sees as a renegade province to be reunited with it, by force if necessary.

Japan intends to raise taxes to fund the increased defence outlays, in a move that had met with resistance within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and open rebellion by two of his ministers.

But under a plan endorsed on Friday, corporate, tobacco and disaster reconstruction income taxes will be raised, most likely from FY2024, to fund defence spending.

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