Dynamic Shifts in Geopolitics in the Pacific: Japan’s Defense Surge and South Korea’s Ascent in Global Arms Exports


The geopolitical landscape in the Pacific is undergoing a significant transformation as nations like Japan and South Korea navigate complex security challenges through substantial increases in defense spending and strategic policy shifts. In Japan, the approval of a 16.5% surge in defense spending for the fiscal year 2024, coupled with the Defense Buildup Program, reflects a decade-long commitment to fortifying national security in the face of escalating threats from China, North Korea, and Russia. This comprehensive plan encompasses key pillars such as stand-off defense capabilities, air and missile defense, and sustainable maneuvering and deployment capabilities. Concurrently, Japan’s relaxation of arms export restrictions signals a departure from historical norms, allowing for the shipment of domestically produced weaponry, including Patriot air defense missiles, to allies like the United States.

Following World War II, Japan upheld a notable stance against militarization; however, recent years have seen a departure from that position. South Korea has also emerged with robust commitments. In the Pacific, where Chinese interests are expanding, and the U.S. is shaping policies for regional powers, the evolving positions of Japan and Korea will have a substantial impact on security prospects, influencing not only the region but also the broader global militarization scenario.

Japan has given approval for a 16.5% increase in defense spending for the fiscal year 2024, marking a new record for the tenth consecutive year in its pursuit of the Defense Buildup Program. The approved budget of 7.95 trillion yen ($55.9 billion) is aimed at addressing heightened military threats from China, North Korea, and Russia, within what Tokyo describes as the “most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II.” This increase, inclusive of U.S. Forces realignment-related expenses, amounts to a significant 16.5% rise, totaling $7.92 billion compared to the current fiscal year. The budget plan, set to be passed by the bicameral legislature in the coming months, is the second year of the Defense Buildup Program, which outlines a five-year period with a total defense spending of $302 billion through fiscal year 2027. The plan focuses on seven key pillars to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities, including stand-off defense capabilities, comprehensive air and missile defense, unmanned asset defense, cross-domain operational capabilities, command and control functions, maneuvering and deployment capability, and sustainability.

Under the stand-off defense capabilities pillar, the Ministry secured funds to develop homegrown stand-off missiles, including an upgraded Type 12 surface-to-ship missile. The Integrated Air and Missile Defense system is set to receive $8.77 billion for addressing new aerial threats, with allocations for the next-generation fighter program, a medium-range air-to-air guided missile, and the procurement of additional F-35A and F-35B fighter aircraft. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is allocated substantial funds, including $2.62 billion for two Aegis system-equipped vessels and $1.22 billion for two New FFM multirole frigates. The new frigates, totaling 12, will succeed the Mogami-class and feature improved capabilities, longer-range missiles, and enhanced anti-submarine capabilities.

The JMSDF also earmarked $298 million to modify its Izumo-class helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers capable of supporting Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter operations. The transformation is expected to be completed by fiscal year 2027. Meanwhile, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) focuses on strengthening security in the Nansei Islands, particularly in response to potential contingencies with China. A budget of $121.6 million is allocated to procure three maneuverable boats for swift and reliable transportation in the event of an invasion of Japan’s southwestern islands. Despite challenges such as the depreciation of the yen and rising prices, officials emphasize that there will be no reduction in the number of major weapons and equipment for fiscal year 2024, based on the Defense Buildup Program outlined in December 2022.

So, Japan has relaxed restrictions on arms exports, allowing the shipment of domestically produced missiles and artillery to countries, including the United States, as part of a significant policy overhaul—the most extensive in nearly a decade. The move, announced on December 22, 2023, coincides with the cabinet’s approval of a record increase in defense spending for the next year, surpassing 16 percent, reaching $56 billion. This decision comes amid escalating security tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. The amended regulations permit Japan to export Patriot air defense missiles to the United States, a move considered pivotal in reinforcing the Japan-US alliance. While restrictions still prohibit the export of weapons to nations at war, the adjustment facilitates the United States in providing additional military aid to Ukraine. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi emphasized the significance of the policy change, stating that it not only enhances Japan’s security but also contributes to peace and stability in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

On December 22, 2023, the cabinet’s approval of the 2024 defense budget of 7.95 trillion yen aligns with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s objective to double defense spending to 2 percent of the gross domestic product by 2027, following the NATO standard. This budget increase supports the deployment of long-range cruise missiles capable of targeting China and North Korea. Japan’s motivation for this substantial defense expansion stems from concerns over China’s military ambitions, heightened by the Ukraine war and the potential threat to Taiwan. North Korea’s missile launches and the prospect of future nuclear tests have also contributed to Tokyo’s decision to bolster defense spending. This shift in policy represents a departure for Japan, traditionally adhering to a stance against exporting lethal weapons, and signifies a break from its post-World War II principle of restricting the use of force to self-defense.

Notably, the Patriot missile defense system, produced in Japan under license from U.S. companies Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, is among the weaponry supplied to Ukraine by the West. Previously limited to exporting only components, the revised guidelines now permit the export of completed products to countries where patent holders are based, with re-exports to third countries requiring Tokyo’s permission. The ruling party has contemplated these changes for months, considering potential obstacles in exporting next-generation fighter jets developed with Britain and Italy. Additionally, there are reports of Japan considering the export of 155mm artillery shells, produced under a license from BAE Systems, to the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, in the previous year, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol publicly set an ambitious objective of becoming one of the world’s top four weapons suppliers, following the United States, Russia, and France. While this goal might have seemed challenging just a few years ago, recent substantial deals between Seoul and its domestic arms industries have made it appear more attainable. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranked South Korea as the ninth-largest arms exporter globally for the period 2018-22. Among the top 25 exporters, South Korea and China were the only two Asian nations. Notably, South Korean arms sales experienced a remarkable 74 percent surge in the five-year span from 2018-22 compared to 2013-17.

The South Korean government initiated efforts in the late 2000s and early 2010s to bolster the export-driven nature of the country’s defense industry. Kim Jae Yeop, Senior Researcher at the Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy in Seoul, explained that these endeavors aimed not only to generate significant economic value, such as increased employment and profits for the Korean defense industry, but also to enhance its long-term competitiveness amid fierce global competition among numerous arms suppliers. These efforts appear to be yielding positive results, with Kim characterizing 2022 as a year of “unprecedented success for arms exports to foreign markets.” Defense exports in the past year reached $17.3 billion, more than doubling the $7.25 billion achieved in 2021. The trajectory is expected to continue upward in 2023, attributed to the sale of fighters to Malaysia, ground vehicles to Australia, and a rumored air defense system sale to Saudi Arabia.

On August 31st, Japan’s Defense Ministry made a request for an approximately $53 billion budget for its upcoming defense fiscal year. This marks a record-breaking 13 percent increase and is the 12th consecutive annual rise in budgetary requests. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida explained that this substantial spending boost is part of a comprehensive five-year plan amounting to nearly $295 billion, aimed at fortifying Japan’s defense capabilities in response to escalating threats in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite a long-standing self-imposed cap of 1 percent of GDP, Japan aspires to allocate 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending. Within this year’s budget proposal, over $5 billion is earmarked for the development of a fleet of standoff missiles, nearly $9 billion is allocated to enhance the nation’s air and missile defense systems, and approximately $500 million is invested in next-generation fighter jets through a broader agreement with the United Kingdom and Italy.

In a significant shift from its historical military pacifism, Japan published a new national security strategy in December 2022, overturning six decades of tradition. However, Prime Minister Kishida emphasized that the country remains committed to a self-defense posture. The report from Japan’s Defense Ministry identifies China as its “greatest strategic challenge.” Kishida has further emphasized the importance of acquiring a “counterstrike capability” to effectively deter potential attacks from China.

As Japan redefines its defense posture, South Korea emerges as a noteworthy player in the global arms market. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s ambitious goal of positioning South Korea among the world’s top four weapons suppliers is backed by substantial achievements. From being ranked as the ninth-largest arms exporter globally to experiencing a remarkable 74% surge in arms sales from 2018-22, South Korea’s endeavors to strengthen its defense industry’s export-driven characteristics are bearing fruit. With a focus on economic value, increased employment, and long-term competitiveness, South Korea’s success in arms exports, projected to continue in 2023, highlights the nation’s evolving role in shaping regional security dynamics. Together, these developments underscore the dynamic nature of militarization in the Pacific, influencing the strategic calculus of nations in response to evolving security challenges.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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