FINANCE MINISTRY NEEDS TO LOOSEN PURSE STRINGS ON DEFENSE SPENDING
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been on a missile-launching spree since September 25, firing a total of at least 12 ballistic missiles over seven days as of (three in September and four as of October 11). The possibility of a nuclear test before the end of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s National Congress, which starts on October 16, cannot be ruled out. On September 8, Kim adopted a “New Nuclear Policy Law,” declaring that Pyongyang will instantly retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is attacked by nuclear or conventional weapons, or if it judges such an attack is imminent.
In Russia’s war of aggression with Ukraine, early on October 8, a huge explosion damaged the Kerch Strait road-and-rail bridge—the only bridge connecting the annexed Crimean Peninsula with the Russian mainland. The Russian-installed authorities in Crimea moved quickly to restore some road and rail traffic on the bridge, and on the morning of October 10, the Russian Army fired a barrage of missiles across Ukraine into major cities, including Kyiv, Lviv, Ternopil, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipro. As of June 2020, Putin made clear his readiness to retaliate with nuclear weapons in his own nuclear doctrine, in which he asserted that “Russia has the right to resort to nuclear weapons if its existence is threatened.” The possibility of North Korea or Russia launching a nuclear attack should therefore be seen as increasing the more they are driven into a corner.
On October 7, I invited to my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show two international security experts to discuss the matter—former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Sugio Takahashi, head of the Defense Policy Division of the National Institute for Defense Studies. Takahashi asked Onodera:
“If the US refused to arbitrarily decide to retaliate with nuclear weapons after a possible nuclear strike from Russia, i.e., if Washington were to say it must first consult with its allies instead, how do you think Japan should respond? Would you expect Japan to want the US to strike back with nuclear weapons? I believe Japanese politicians must be prepared to clearly give an answer to the Americans in their own words when the critical moment comes.”
As a matter of fact, Onodera himself engaged in a similar discussion when he appeared on my news show on May 13.
“I was in Washington during Japan’s long stretch of holidays in early May to exchange views with a host of American national security experts. When I asked them how the US would respond if Russia should resort to nukes in its war against Ukraine, all of them replied that America would not be taking any arbitrary action but would instead consult its allies, such as NATO and Japan.”
When he heard about this, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately said: “That means the US wants Japan to share the responsibility.”
Onodera emphasized this time:
“By committing itself to the US nuclear umbrella, Japan in fact is asking the US to protect it even by risking the use of nuclear weapons…or rather, by readily using them when necessary. Therefore, we take joint responsibility for that situation.”
Five Years Is Too Long To Wait
The upcoming 20th National Congress of the CCP in Beijing will mark the start of Xi Jinping’s third leadership term. There is the possibility that the new lifetime ruler of China, purportedly unafraid of anything, will be taking hardline measures, including a possible invasion of Taiwan. Holding nukes and missiles in both hands, the three autocratic dictators of China, North Korea, and Russia will continue to forge ahead with their diplomacy by blackmail.
All Japanese must come to grips with the severity of this threat we face. And the first thing we must all bear in mind is that, despite being a major economic power, Japan is the only nation without normal armed forces. Our Self-Defense Forces are confined within the framework of police authority under the terms of our constitution and the JSDF Act. Their actions are extremely restricted, making it impossible to function as regular armed forces. The constitution should have been revised much earlier, undoing the legal yoke that binds the JSDF, but that has been a tough nut to crack. And now Japan is grappling with a major headache at hand—how to increase its defense outlay to 2% of its GDP, or some \5 trillion ($US3.45 trillion) within the next five years.
The cost to the nation for turning its back on the military in the post-war period has been quite high. The JSDF have chronically lacked personnel, arms, and equipment. In other words, the JSDF are not properly equipped to conduct war: it is said their ammunition and missiles will last only a half day in case of a conflict. This gap must be filled as soon as possible. Japan can hardly afford to wait five long years.
A nation must be founded on a strong economy and sufficient defense outlay, i.e., a strong army, navy, and air force. It was Abe who maintained that, in order to accommodate both, the government should issue defense bonds instead of increasing taxes to pay for national defense. A tax increase would predictably lead to another economic downtown, as has been the case in the past.
Despite this, the Finance Ministry is taking actions which will undermine the financing of a stronger military. Due to the excessive importance it puts on minimizing budget deficits, the ministry is maneuvering behind the scenes to oppose the issuing of defense bonds.
On September 26, the Finance Ministry held a subcommittee meeting in which Minister Shunichi Suzuki stated negative views regarding the proposed increase in defense spending: “Deficit government bonds will destabilize the economy in times of armed conflict.” Obviously, he was putting a check on deficit financing of defense bonds in order to keep the primary balance (PB) intact.
Then on September 30, the ministry hosted a conference to “comprehensively review national defense capabilities.” It was ostensibly an occasion to review the subject “comprehensively,” but the organizers made no secret of revealing to reporters present that their primary purpose was to discuss the financial resources to bolster our defense capability, referring to “securing stable financial resources” several times. Among the participants were journalists representing major outlets, such as The Nikkei and The Yomiuri Shimbun. From the line-up of the participants, the real intent of the ministry was obvious.
At the Mercy of Finance Ministry
I may sound like I am repeating myself but allow me to point out that the national defense crisis Japan is faced with is threatening the very existence of our state. In order to address the situation, we must take every conceivable measure as speedily as possible. Powerful countermeasures will be impossible without a robust economy. But the Finance Ministry maintains that an increase in defense outlay should be covered by a tax increase and that, if that is not agreeable, it will have to slash other budgets, such as health and welfare, to make ends meet. It warns that increased budget deficits would cause the value of government bonds to take a dive, making it impossible to issue bonds in the future. But the stability of debt issuance ought to be founded primarily on a sound economy. Also, economic stability will significantly be undermined if increased taxes act as a brake on economic growth.
Let us review the economic reality of Japan in accordance with how Hideo Tamura, special economic writer for The Sankei Shimbun, explains it. Due partly to a weaker yen, the retained earnings of Japanese corporations have increased by \49 trillion yen (US$338 billion) for a combined total of some \500 trillion (US$3.45 trillion) over the past year. In other words, Japan is a well-to-do nation, with an estimated total of \1,500 trillion (US$10.35 trillion) in personal and corporate wealth.
As these numbers show, the Japanese are obviously rich. Why then shouldn’t the government consider turning to the people and corporations to apply a small part of their wealth to a purchase of defense bonds? Increasing our defense expenditures to 2% of our GDP, or some \5 trillion (US$34.5 billion), over the next five years would mean an annual increase of \1 trillion (US$ 6.9 billion). As Japan’s population is about 126 million today, that would mean asking every citizen to spend slightly less than \8,000 (US$55) on defense bonds annually for the next five years.
The per-head annual Japanese national defense expenditure, estimated at \40,000 (US$276), is much smaller than the US (\210,000; US$1,450), South Korea (\120,000; US$828), or the UK (\100,000; US$690). If we can manage to strengthen our self-defense forces and simultaneously keep the economy growing by the people and corporations joining forces, I have no doubt that Japan eventually will be able to develop a vigorous economy that can sustain future tax increases.
At the very least, it would be better than the Finance Ministry sticking to its conservative budgeting, raising taxes, and once again getting the country deep into the quagmire of endless deflation.
After all, a nation can only safeguard the lives and livelihoods of its citizens by maintaining a sound economy as a solid national foundation in the first place. Seemingly lacking in the mindset of Financial Ministry bureaucrats is the spirit of national interests. What one sees among them instead is a stubborn attachment to the interests of their ministry. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must bear in mind that he will be unable to expect to build a prosperous and strong nation if he misjudges the direction of Japan’s national defense at this critical juncture.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,020 in the October 20, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)