Japanese govt pushes for more military spending

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is requesting another increase in spending on Japan’s armed forces, with a plan to expand missile defences that would test the nation’s commitment to pacifism and escalate a regional arms race with China and North Korea.

With rising threats from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme and repeated incursions by Chinese ships into waters surrounding a string of islands claimed by Japan, the request would let the ministry develop new anti-ballistic missiles and place troops on southern islands closer to the chain in dispute with China.

If approved, the budget proposal for 5.17 trillion yen ($50.2 billion) formally submitted on Wednesday, would be the nation’s fifth-straight annual increase in military spending. It is a 2.3% rise over last year.

The request includes proposals to develop and potentially purchase new anti-ballistic missiles that can be launched from ships or land, and to upgrade and extend the range of the country’s current land-based missile defence systems, a significant expansion of Japan’s missile defence capabilities.

The budget also details plans to buy an additional submarine and new fighter aircraft, and to put close to 1,300 soldiers from the Self-Defence Force, Japan’s military, on the southern islands of Kagoshima and Okinawa. These locations are closer to the Senkaku, the chain of islands where both China and Japan claim territorial rights.

Despite Japan’s long-standing postwar pacifism, initially imposed by a constitution that was largely written by US occupiers, the country has long argued that the constitution does not prevent it from maintaining defensive equipment and troops.

But the definition of what is needed to defend the country has evolved as Japan confronts new dangers. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, government assessments of security in the region led to a decrease in defence budgets every year. Yet five years ago, the government began inc-reasing its budget again as new provocations emerged from China and North Korea.

The budget deliberations come as Abe’s government is reconsidering Japan’s pacifist stance. Abe has long expressed his interest in revising the clause in the constitution that says the country must “forever renounce war,” and he helped push through new secu-rity laws last year that permit Japan’s troops to participate in overseas combat missions.

The latest Japanese defence proposal is being released as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear capabilities and test-fire ballistic missiles that land ever closer to Japan.

Just last week, North Korea launched a missile from a submarine off its east coast that flew 310 miles toward Japan, much farther than in previous attempts. By extending the range of some anti-ballistic missile systems, the Japanese would be better equipped to shoot down incoming missiles launched by Pyongyang.

Japan’s current land-based missile defence systems have a limited range for intercepting incoming ballistic missiles. By expanding that range, the new systems should be able to shoot down missiles before they get so close.

As for the Chinese, their vessels have repeatedly sailed into disputed waters surrounding a group of uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku to Japan and the Diaoyu to China. In June, China sent a warship within 24 nautical miles of the islands; Abe responded by putting the Japanese navy and coast guard on alert.

‘Security dilemma’

Japan’s defence budget proposal would include funds to help proceed with development – in conjunction with the US – of advanced anti-ballistic missiles that can be launched from ships and that have much longer ranges than previous incarnations.

Experts said these missiles could be used not only to shoot down North Korean missiles, but also to deter China from mounting an invasion of the disputed islands. Placing more troops on the southern islands of Japan is also intended to deter China from moving closer to the Senkaku.

“We’re in the middle of what is commonly called the security dilemma,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“When one nation does something which it believes to be defensive and in its own interests, its competitor will see it as threatening and see it as offensive, and then you get this arms race and security dilemma,” he said. “That’s very much in play here.”

The Defence Ministry’s budget request must be reviewed by the Finance Ministry and approved by Parliament before any purchases can be made. Analysts said nothing in the new budget request suggested Japan would cross the line from a primarily defensive stance to a more offensive one.

“If they started to procure long-range bombers or intercontinental ballistic missiles, those would be the things where I wo-uld say, ‘Now we are seeing something radically different,’” said Jeffrey Hornung, a research fellow for security and foreign policy at Sasakawa USA, in Washington, DC.

At an annual review staged by the Ground Self-Defence Force in the foothills of Mount Fuji last weekend, 25,000 spectators gathered to watch a parade of tanks, helicopters and other armored vehicles,. In one segment described as a demonstration of how troops would respond to an attack on unspecified islands, soldiers dropped from Chinook heli-copters and tanks rolled by a muddy field.

Naoko Matsumaru, 42, who works in a flour mill, attended the drills with her young daughter and son. She said that she had been concerned about threats from North Korea and China, but that “after seeing today’s show, I feel maybe we are actually OK.”

Those who value Japan’s pacifism said they were concerned about the expanded military role. “In these times, I am a little bit worried,” said Toru Matsuzaki, 71, a woodworker. He referred to a generation of “heiwa boke,” people who innocently take peace for granted. “Realistically it may be necessary to increase the budget,” he said, “but I don’t like it.”

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