Fueled by concerns over North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programs and general wariness of China’s regional ambitions, an accelerating arms race has inevitably become the new normal in East Asia . In 2021, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the region registered a 4.9 percent year-on-year increase in defense spending, for a combined total of $411 billion. Apart from China, which unsurprisingly accounted for the largest share ($293 billion), U.S. regional allies––Japan and South Korea––have committed to a substantive expansion of their own military defense budgets, reaching $54.1 billion and $50.2 billion, respectively, in 2021 . Meanwhile, this trend is unlikely to abate in 2023 on account of the possibility of a conflict over Taiwan (possibly as early as 2025, according to a controversial January 27 memo issued by Gen. Mike Minihan, commanding officer of the U.S. Air Mobility Command) or the South China Sea, persistent concerns about a continuation of Pyongyang’s heretofore unprecedented year of missile testing activity (95 ballistic and other missile launches in 2022), and a gradual yet distinct shift in South Korean popular opinion regarding the acquisition of a domestic nuclear deterrent following a gradual loss of faith in Washington’s extended nuclear deterrence guarantees.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, on November 28, 2022, announced the government’s intention to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027, up from the current 1 percent threshold. Less than a month later, Japan also unveiled a sweeping overhaul of Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS). These announcements followed the government’s decision in November 2021 to earmark an additional $7 billion for the 2022 defense budget. Not only did this decision yield the highest annual defense budget growth rate (7.3 percent) in 50 years but it also pushed Japan’s defense outlays slightly above 1 percent of GDP, a threshold that had largely remained unchanged since the 1960 revision of the U.S-Japan Security Treaty .
Though certainly understandable and more than justified given the regional security dynamics, Japan’s defense shift might yet emerge as a significant contributor to the unfolding security dilemma in East Asia.
The country’s new NSS offers an uncharacteristically blunt assessment of China, noting in particular that “China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community, and present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community, as well as in strengthening the international order based on the rule of law, to which Japan should respond with its comprehensive national power and in cooperation with its ally, like-minded countries and others” . It may not be clear if Japan’s newfound willingness to act increasingly as a normal country from a defense and national security perspective is the result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, heightened concerns about a Chinese move against Taiwan, the February 2022 Sino-Russian joint statement outlining a “no-limits” strategic partnership, or a combination thereof. It is, however, becoming readily apparent that PM Kishida is expanding on the late Shinzo Abe’s dream of “normalizing” the nature and operational scope of Japan’s military (commonly referred to as Self Defense Forces).
Specifically, Japan is eschewing a status quo posture in favor of a policy of hard balancing to be better positioned to respond to the nature and complexity of 21st century regional security challenges in Northeast Asia.
The United States, which had been singularly contributing to a pronounced postwar Japanese pacifism––by pushing for the inclusion of Article 9 into the constitution whereby “the Japanese people renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and “…land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be sustained”––felt compelled by the time of the Korean War (1950-53) to reassess the strategic logic of this constitutional constraint in light of the unfolding Cold War ideological struggle in East Asia. Similarly, Japan’s 21st-century commitment to shake off the remaining vestiges of the so-called Peace Constitution, embrace a more active geostrategic role and redouble its efforts to develop credible and comprehensive counter-strike capabilities to deter an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea, while simultaneously contributing in tangible ways to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, might yet yield a range of unanticipated and unintended consequences.
In the first instance, China will certainly respond to Japan’s intention to increase its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP over the next five years with a broad range of counterreactions. As such, Japan has to be cautious about how its inclination toward hard balancing will be perceived. Indeed, the combination of trepidation about China’s assertiveness and the strategic implications of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of national rejuvenation on the one hand, and Japan’s repudiation of a status quo posture, on the other, is a recipe for consequential recalibration of the security and strategic calculus in the region. Second, and judging by precedent actions, any hint of concerted Japanese militarization is bound to rekindle historical grievances of Imperial Japan’s military aggression that continue to linger just beneath the surface, not only in China but also in South Korea. Absent a genuine and deliberate commitment by all relevant state parties to finally bury the ghosts of WWII Japanese military aggression, occupation and exploitation through a German-style Vergangenheitsbewältigung, it would not be altogether difficult for China to turn Japan’s expansion of military capabilities into an opportunity to seek common ground with South Korea, thus driving a wedge between U.S. allies and, by extension, complicating Washington’s efforts to constrain China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, Japan’s new national security strategy may also serve as a convenient pretext for Russia and China to deepen their “no-limits” strategic partnership even further. Both sides had certainly been quick to voice their objections in seemingly coordinated fashion. Beijing expressed its firm opposition to and strong dissatisfaction over Japan’s defense shift on December 16, 2022, with the Chinese embassy in Tokyo stating that Japan’s move “provokes regional tension and confrontation” . Moscow, meanwhile, condemned what it described as “unbridled militarization”, with the Russian Foreign Ministry issuing a statement on December 22, 2022, warning that the move would “inevitably provoke new security challenges and will lead to increased tension in the Asia-Pacific region” .
Japan’s defense shift has the potential to foster stability but also to exacerbate regional insecurity at a time when the expanding China-U.S. great-power rivalry has already led to heightened volatility and strategic complexity across Northeast Asia.
To minimize the risk of actual conflict and to stave off the prospect of a “paradoxical logic of strategy”  (re-)defining the Northeast Asian security environment, the regional stakeholders should make a more concerted effort toward adopting confidence-building measures, prioritizing multilateral engagement, and insisting on open communication and increased transparency of intent through existing regional institutions. Alas, in the short term, it is difficult to see how Northeast Asia could avoid the inevitable security dilemma that results from an accelerating arms race and an ever-evolving geostrategic calculus.
(1) Andrew Sharp, “Asia’s arms race: China spurs military spending spree”, Nikkei Asia, February 23, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Asia-s-arms-race-China-spurs-military-spending-spree
(2) “Trends in world military expenditures, 2021”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Fact Sheet, April 2022, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf.
(3) SIPRI, April 2022, op. cit.
(4) “National Security Strategy of Japan”, Ministry of Defense, December 22, https://www.mod.go.jp/j/approach/agenda/guideline/pdf/security_strategy_en.pdf.
(5) “China says Japan’s defense shift provokes ‘regional tension’”, Japan Times, December 17, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/12/17/national/japan-defense-china-reaction/
(6) “Russia condemns ‘militarization’ of Japan under Kishida defence plan”, Reuters, December 22, https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-condemns-militarization-japan-under-kishida-defence-plan-2022-12-22/.
(7) Edward Luttwak, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 5-6.