Japan plans to raise military budget amid China row
TOKYO - Japan will raise military spending this year for the first time in over a decade under a ruling party plan, an official said Tuesday, as Tokyo summoned Beijing's envoy amid a territorial row.
The national defense task force of the newly-elected Liberal Democratic Party will increase the defense budget request by more than 100 billion yen ($1.15 billion) in response to an emboldened China, a party official told AFP.
The relatively small amount -- just over two percent of the total military budget -- is largely symbolic, but reflects anxiety at what Japan sees as an increasingly hostile region in which China appears happy to throw its weight about.
"We have decided that the additional budget will be used for research into a new radar system as well as fuel and other maintenance costs for early-warning aircraft," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The news came as the foreign ministry called in China's ambassador to protest at the latest dispatch of official vessels into waters around the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.
The summons was the first under nationalistic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and reflects the tough line he pushed on China on the campaign trail in December.
Nerves are also rattled by an unpredictable North Korea. It sent a rocket over Japan's southern islands last month in what it insisted was a satellite launch, but Tokyo and its allies said was a covert ballistic missile test.
The military is bound by the country's US-imposed pacifist constitution, which restricts its ability to project power or to wage aggressive war. However, commentators say it is a modern, well-funded and well-equipped force.
In the run-up to last month's election, the LDP pledged to expand the number of personnel in the Self-Defense Forces and boost their equipment and spending power.
The proposed increase in funding comes after declines over 10 consecutive years as Tokyo grappled with its huge public debt.
The initial defense budget for fiscal 2012, which ends in March, stood at 4.65 trillion yen. This compares with a budget for fiscal 2002 that peaked at 4.94 trillion yen.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has said Abe's government will review Japan's long-term basic defense program, adopted in 2010 under the Democratic Party of Japan which was routed at the polls.
The current program includes plans to trim troop numbers by around 1,000.
Kazuhiko Togo, director at the Institute for World Affairs of Kyoto Sangyo University, said the planned rise in defense spending was a direct result of China's more hostile attitude, specifically over the disputed islands.
"China has publicly said it would seize the islands by force if necessary and acted as such. To avoid a possible armed clash, Japan has no choice but to possess deterrence by boosting its defense budget," he said.
"But at the same time, Japan needs to have dialogue to achieve its diplomatic goal. Deterrence and dialogue are two halves of the same circle," he added.
Abe has pledged to improve ties with key ally the United States and other democracies in the region, including Australia and India, as a counterbalance to China.
The United States stations some 47,000 troops in the world's third-largest economy in a legacy from World War II, after which Japan was stripped of its right to maintain a full-fledged military.
The alliance enjoys broad support among Japanese leaders but tensions have repeatedly flared with communities that host US bases, particularly on Okinawa.
A rise in defense spending will likely be welcomed in Washington, which has called for Tokyo to shoulder more of the burden of regional security.
However, any attempt to reinforce Japan's military has traditionally aroused suspicion in countries like China and the two Koreas that fell victim to its wartime rampage.
Domestically, the pacifism policy enjoys widespread support.