A Department of Defense report released last Thursday discussed China’s continuing efforts to modernize its military. It noted that China is preparing not just for contingencies in its traditional problem with Taiwan, but in the South and East China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. The report particularly noted the modernization of the Chinese Air Force, calling it “unprecedented in history” and also mentioned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy conducted its largest naval exercise at the Philippine Sea. Chinese President Xi Jiping and Barrack Obama did affirm that their two countries should work together to expand cooperation and dialogue, but naturally such Chinese military modernization must provoke concern in the eyes of Washington. And if Washington is worried across the Pacific Ocean, surely nearby Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan are also starting to prepare for China’s military rise, correct?
No, not really.
China (as well as South Korea) may love to portray Japan as a country that would go right back into its days as the rabid dog of its Imperial Days if its leash was loosened just the slightest bit. But the reality is that even though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains popular, his efforts to reinterpret Japanese pacifism have met with continual resistance not just by the parliamentary opposition, but also by members of his own coalition. It is not like Shinzo Abe is asking for Japan to scrap the pacifist Article 9 of its constitution. Abe is asking that Japan should 1. Provide limited logistical aid to the United States in the case of a conflict with say, North Korea and that 2. Japan should be able to shoot down a missile heading to a nearby country. Such blatantly harmless requests have received widespread opposition across the country, and the Economist noted in a poll that only 39 percent of the country supported such changes. Only 39 percent of Japanese are willing to defend their main ally in the case of a direct attack.
But polls are not the first, or even the main concern which the United States should have about Japan. Abe has shown a repeated willingness to stick his finger into China’s eye, but he has refused to increase Japan’s military budget to compensate for such tactics. Japan military spending is at 0.88 percent of GDP as of April 2014. Increasing the defense budget to as much as 1 percent of GDP would be politically unthinkable in Japan as well.
So, is it noble pacifism which ensures that Japan keeps its military budget so low and unwilling to protect its allies? Or is it the fact that Japan is continually feeding off American military strength. Japan may the worst offender, but it is hardly alone in its willingness to take advantage of American while doing little to nothing defend themselves from their problematic giant neighbor. South Korea spends 2.7 percent of its defense, an astonishingly low number for a country which has an extremely hostile and deranged enemy as a neighbor. The Philippines spend around 1.2 percent, and even Australia, arguably the most reliable of America’s allies, spends less than 2 percent.
If you pay any attention about American foreign policy, then you know of the current strategy of the “pivot to Asia”, as America has committed more resources towards the Pacific and less to its NATO allies in the Atlantic (though even that strategy has been called into question in the face of Russian meddling in Eastern Europe). While I certainly believe that the pivot is sound strategy given the rise of China, the problem of ally military underspending must be addressed if the United States is to continue protecting its friends even while Washington battles continual budget problems.