Japan’s dovish Kishida may now take defence mantle of slain mentor Abe

NARA, JAPAN (REUTERS) – After a strong showing in an election overshadowed by the killing of former premier Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may have fresh momentum to hike defence spending on a scale beyond the grasp of his slain mentor.

In doing so, Mr Kishida, a moderate from Hiroshima who wants nuclear weapons banned, would expand on Mr Abe’s hawkish legacy and ensure support from Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hardliners loyal to Mr Abe.

The LDP’s ruling coalition increased its majority in Parliament’s Upper House two days after Mr Abe, the nation’s longest-serving premier and a party power broker, was gunned down during a campaign speech in the western city of Nara.

The crime stunned a nation in which gun violence is rare, setting off a wave of mourning and assessments of Mr Abe’s legacy. His influence was both far-reaching and polarising, especially on defence.

Securing the throne

Mr Kishida’s promise to “substantially” boost defence spending took on new significance after the killing.

Seen by some voters as too hawkish, the former premier had never been able to boost defence spending to the 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) his party has set as a goal.

The next defence budget could be as much as 6 trillion yen (S$61 billion), or an increase of 11 per cent from last year, one LDP lawmaker who had been close to Mr Abe and had knowledge of internal defence discussions told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

“If he can achieve that, the conservatives within the party will flock to Mr Kishida, and he will have a long-term administration, no doubt about it,” the lawmaker added. “Kishida can secure his throne by realising Mr Abe’s goals.”

That conservative support is critical, since Mr Kishida has pursued economic policies that diverge from the neo-liberalism Mr Abe favoured.

Control of the factious LDP would allow Mr Kishida three years to execute his programme before another election.

Japanese voters, fearing a slide into militarism, have traditionally been wary of big increases in defence spending, but many now worry that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may embolden China to attack neighbouring Taiwan.

Annual percentage increases of about 10 per cent, the size mentioned by the LDP lawmaker, would double military spending to 2 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade and make Japan the world’s third-biggest military spender behind the United States and China.

Beijing now spends more than four times as much as Japan on defence, a ranking of 2021 global defence budgets by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows.