Japanese support for military build-up likely to rise after China’s missiles

China’s missile launch in waters less than 160 km (100 miles) from Japan following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is likely to bolster public support for a military buildup to defend against Japan’s big neighbor.

China launched five ballistic missiles into the sea at the western end of the Okinawa island chain on Thursday, part of a spate of military drills and activities, two days after the speaker of the US House of Representatives became the top US official to lead self-governing Taiwan in 25 years visited.

“It clearly shows that if anything happens to Taiwan, we will be concerned,” said Taro Kono, a senior Liberal Democratic Party ruling lawmaker and former foreign and defense minister.

“The tide has definitely turned in Japan,” he added, when asked if the public would support increased military spending.

Defense is a divisive issue in Japan, which, inherited from World War II, has a pacifist constitution and persistent public skepticism about involvement in US-led wars.

China’s unprecedented missile launch in Japan’s exclusive economic zone came as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government was preparing to release a defense budget proposal for a significant increase in spending this month.

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The spending plan will be followed by a defense policy review by the end of the year, which is expected to include a call for purchases of longer-range munitions to counter China, which Japan says has replaced North Korea as its primary national security threat in 2019.

Concerns about Chinese military activity in the seas and skies around Taiwan and Japan have increased since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, over Japan fears it is setting a precedent for China to use force against Taiwan that the US may be setting don’t stop straight away.

“The military balance has changed a lot in Taiwan,” said retired Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, who served as chief of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces for five years until 2019.

“I hope that the defense budget discussions will become serious.”

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‘Battle ready’

In a manifesto ahead of last month’s general election, Kishida’s LDP pledged to double defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product over five years, which would make Japan the third-biggest military spender in the world after the US and China, according to a 2021 Defense Budget ranking Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Kishida, who condemned China’s actions, has promised to increase defense spending “significantly” but has yet to say by how much and how quickly.

He also declined to say whether Japan’s militarization would be paid for by cuts in public spending elsewhere, or by borrowing, or a combination of both.

China’s missiles have given Kishida a chance to clarify his position, especially amid questions about the extent to which the US would face a crisis, said Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Japan’s Takushoku University in Tokyo.

“Japan must clearly show that it is ready to fight,” said Kawakami.

During the last major Taiwan crisis in 1996, China conducted missile exercises to intimidate the island, but China’s much weaker military could not stop the US from sending warships, including a US aircraft carrier strike group, through the Taiwan Strait to attack the island separates mainland China from the island.

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China has since increased its defense spending 20-fold and has hundreds of ballistic missiles that can hit targets, including ships, hundreds or thousands of miles away with much greater accuracy.

The USS Ronald Reagan, the only forward-deployed US airline, was patrolling the Philippine Sea in the western Pacific on Thursday as part of “scheduled operations”.

Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and a former military attache at the Japanese embassy in China, said it was a US policy decision to maintain this low-key presence.

“There is also the reality that China is now a stronger military power. If it had been like 1996, America might have put a stop to it,” he said, referring to the eruption of Chinese military activity this week.