The most noteworthy aspect in the reshuffle exercise attempted by Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was the appointment of a new Defense Minister. Kishida choose Yasukazu Hamada to take charge the nation’s defense at a time when China’s military assertiveness is growing relentlessly and North Korea’s nuclear sabre-rattling continues by missile firings and development of nuclear weapons, posing a threat to Japan’s security. So, Hamada’s tasks are clearly cut out from the day he assumed charge. Hamada shall be shepherding through some of the biggest changes in Japanese defense policy in nearly a decade. This shall include revisions to the National Security Strategy and other key security documents before the year ends. A comprehensive roadmap shall help in laying the foundation for Japan’s defense policy, potentially for the years to come. Hamada has all the credentials to deliver. He has vast experience on defense issues. He is a 10-term Lower House lawmaker representing Chiba ken.
Previously, Hamada served as defense chief between 2008 and 2009 in the administration of then-Prime Minister Taro Aso. From 1998 to 1999, Hamada was parliamentary vice defence minister and parliamentary vice minister of the Defence Agency, the precursor to the Defence Ministry from 2003 to 2004. His earlier role as chairman of the Lower House’s powerful budget committee shall help him to navigate contentious discussions over plans to hike defence outlays that aims to be 2 per cent of the GDP. For long the Defence Ministry has been seeking a record budget of over 5.5 trillion yen or $41 billion for fiscal April 2023- March 2024. The ruling LDP has plans to hike the defence budget to 2 per cent of the GDP within five years. It may be mentioned that Japan has informally capped its defence outlays at around 1 per cent of the budget. Hamada now is likely to push beyond this to make 2 per cent a possibility. The nuclear issue has remained contentious since Japan’s defeat in World War II. Japan feels safe to have remained under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella since then.
This narrative does not look sustainable for the future because of two reasons: doubts on the US defence strategy and demands in America to increase the security burden on Japan. In addition, there is the heightening of threat perception because of China’s posture and North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear weapons development programmes, which expose Japan’s security vulnerability. Moreover, the US remains engaged in other theatres such as the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine war and might not be able to come to Japan’s rescue if its security comes under threat. Therefore, preparing to defend one’s own interest could get primary consideration in Kishida administration. There has been a debate going on in Japan for quite some time to amend Article 9 of the pacifist Constitution and make the Self Defense Forces as a fullfledged military, thereby making Japan a country like any other.
The worsening situation in Japan’s neighbourhood and the region could also precipitate a move in Japan to rethink its nuclear option. Though such an option seems unlikely for now, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Japan is not unthinkable if the international situation dramatically changes, posing a severe threat to Japan. There are some differences between Kishida and Hamada, however. While Hamada is opposed to Japan acquiring a socalled counter-strike capability, enabling Japan to attack enemy bases and command centres in other countries, Kishida is not too enthusiastic but remains open to discuss these. On the Taiwan issue, Hamada shall fully back Kishida to adopt a tough position against China and in favour of Taiwan. Hamada’s closeness with Foreign Minister Yoshimada Harashi, who is perceived to be close to Beijing, is unlikely to come in the way of how he crafts his Taiwan strategy.
Before becoming Japan’s Defence Minister, Hamada was one of the four lawmakers who visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen in July, days before Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island. On regional security issues, Hamada understands the importance of diplomacy and has expressed keenness to work with the Quad, a security-focussed grouping comprising of Japan, Australia, India, and the US, thereby conveying a message to Beijing not to be too adventurous on regional issues. Despite his tough posture, Hamada prefers to remain shy of the media spotlight unlike his late father Koichi Hamada who was belligerent in TV debates as well as inside the Diet discussions. Of all the challenges that Japan faces, Hamada’s policy towards China, whose recent military activities and lack of transparency regarding national defence policies and military capabilities needs to be keenly watched, is critical.
There is no denying that China has become a major security concern for Japan, countries in the region and the international community. Among other priority areas, Hamada is likely to focus on securing adequate ammunitions for the SDF personnel, research and development of military technology, strengthening the defence production and technological base, besides addressing public concerns on the reorganisation and activities of US military forces in Japan. While the Japan-US alliance remains as the cornerstone, Hamada is likely to seek greater defence cooperation and carry out joint training and equipment technical cooperation with Australia, India, the ASEAN bloc, Europe, Pacific Island countries and others to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
On the Taiwan issue, Hamada is likely to take the position as before that the issue should be resolved through peaceful dialogue. Despite this, Hamada is aware that in recent years, China’s military has acquired greater teeth and has strengthened its military power. The military balance between China and Taiwan has, therefore, changed in a direction more favourable to China and the gap has been widening every year. If China decides to be adventurous towards Taiwan and uses force to integrate it with the mainland, the security dynamics could assume dangerous dimensions. The large-scale military exercises that China conducted recently around Taiwan and launched ballistic missiles in training waters near Japan are causes of worry for Tokyo. Entrusting the defence and security of Japan to Hamada seems to be Kishida’s master stroke. Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment 2022 (IPD22) mission is continuing steadily with a flurry of activities. Such activities are likely to intensify with Hamada at the helm.