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Is Japan’s defence budget increase a worry?

Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration has decided to increase the defence budget for the first time in 11 years, calling for a 4.68 trillion yen expenditure on defence, a hike of 0.8 per cent from last year.

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Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration has decided to increase the defence budget for the first time in 11 years, calling for a 4.68 trillion yen expenditure on defence, a hike of 0.8 per cent from last year.

Playing the “defending the nation” card, Prime Minister Abe, a nationalist, highlighted the need to strengthen Japan amid hostile neighbours. Japan has, in recent years, engaged in a number of territorial disputes with its neighbours, including the conflicts over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with China; Takeshima/Dokdo with South Korea and the Kuril Islands with Russia.

Veteran defence correspondent Kirk Spitzer reports that the extra budget will be mainly spent on enhancing surveillance flights and improving intelligence-gathering capabilities in the East China Sea, where Japan has engaged in fierce territorial claims with China. A portion of this budget will also be used to boost troop levels for Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF).

In Japan, a defence budget increase is a sensitive issue. Some critics perceive it as a challenge to the Constitution – which prohibits any projects to do with military modernisation – and more importantly, a challenge to regional peace and stability. And any move to reinforce the Japanese army would surely be carefully watched by China, deepening mutual suspicion and complicating the already fragile state of affairs.

That is one reality. Another reality is that Japan’s overall defence budget is relatively modest, comparied with its spending in other areas. Certainly, it is far smaller than China’s defence budget.

China’s military spending has been spiralling upward rapidly, and this has unnerved Beijing’s Asian neighbours and Pentagon policy-planners who are openly wary of the country’s long-term intentions (not to forget its ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei).

Said Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg: “Getting a handle on Chinese military spending is difficult because much of it is opaque and off the books, such as the People’s Liberation Army’s spending on research and space exploration. But various international think-tanks estimate that China’s military spending has risen from about US$20 billion in 2002 to at least US$120 billion in 2011.”

The United States spends four times as much on its military. But by some accounts, China is on course to surpass the US in total military spending by 2035. In this context, Japan’s defence budget looks tiny and will prevent the country from emerging as a military power anytime soon.

Mr Abe has emphasised that the budget increase would help put money into the ailing Japanese economy. Politically, he has attempted to reshape a Japan with national pride and courage in standing up to China, hoping this would deepen the sense of legitimacy of his own government.

But talk of counterbalancing Chinese power could just be Mr Abe’s rhetoric. Last week, he sent his envoy to Beijing to meet with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, presumably to try to cool tensions. But in the end a conflicting message was sent — that of wanting to protect the national interest, but also needing to pacify China in order to create an environment for economic recovery.

Thus far, Southeast Asian nations have yet to voice concerns about Japan’s desire to boost its military troops. Cynically, some may even wish to see a stronger Japan, militarily, to offset the influence of China in the region.

Mr Abe is expected to submit the draft budget to the Diet before it goes into effect within three months. Aside from this, the government has announced plans to revise the National Defence Programme Guidelines adopted in 2011, and draw up a more dynamic defence strategy. If accomplished, the Japanese army would be assigned more responsibilities, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

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