Beijing’s growing military muscle raises concern and calls for increased defence spending in north Asia
Japan adds $6.75 billion to military budget in rush to bolster air and sea defenses
Japan on Friday added $6.75bn (£5.05bn) to its military budget, the biggest increase in three years, under pressure to bolster its air and sea defenses amid mounting regional tensions over China’s growing military muscle.
The move comes after China’s vow last month to bolster its navy and air force with a new aircraft carrier, which is fitted with missiles and nuclear warheads, and the building of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea that was soon followed by a similar one over the South China Sea.
“The government’s decision means that Japan will keep strengthening its capability for joint war-fighting, based on the US alliance,” said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary.
The increases come in the wake of China’s announcement in November of a $180bn defence budget for 2019, 14% higher than the previous year, and Japan’s decision in December to include the purchase of stealth fighter jets in its funding requests.
In Washington, North Korea says it has agreed to stop testing nuclear devices and missiles, a major step towards ending its decades-long nuclear arms programme. But in Japan, there is a growing perception that Tokyo is falling behind Beijing and Moscow in integrating the cyber, electronic warfare and surveillance capabilities needed to operate in contested air and sea zones, according to the Asahi Shimbun.
At a joint session of parliament on Thursday, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he was determined to bolster Japan’s alliance with the US, the world’s most powerful military force. Abe – who came to power in December 2012 vowing to bolster Japan’s military – had his biggest margin of victory in the election for a fresh, five-year term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party on Sunday.
“Japan must be fully committed to the international community, by sharing values, international values that set up the global order,” he said. “North Korea remains the most serious concern for the people of Japan.”
At the same time, China has criticised Japan’s plans to acquire new fighter jets, complaining that Tokyo is violating an agreement between the two nations over the status of Japanese territory in the East China Sea.
Abe has also vowed to ensure that Japan’s troubled military-industrial sector, such as the defence procurement agency, is freed from political interference, which he says will help address its chronic cost overruns and waste.
Japan’s defence budget will remain at about 2.5% of GDP for the next three years, Suga said.
But the prime minister expressed concern about the economic effect on Japanese industry, threatening to have that budget frozen unless companies can improve their efficiency, rebuild confidence and revitalise a potentially profitable market.
As a result, “the mood toward the defence budget has begun to change”, said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“Japanese citizens have a wait-and-see attitude about the change in defence spending,” he said. “They are increasingly worried about the trade war between China and the US, and the question is whether Japan is going to play a role in managing the conflict.”
China and the US are vying for supremacy in Asia in what they perceive as a competition for economic and political influence. Both countries remain vehemently opposed to what they see as Tokyo’s moves to keep China’s maritime expansion in check.
In Beijing, the ministry of defence could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday, although a ministry official last week said it was closely watching Japanese legislation designed to give its military more autonomy.