Japan Prepares to Rival China with Record-Breaking Defense Budget

Sailors stand on the deck of the Izumo warship as it departs from the harbor of the Japan United Marine shipyard in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. March 25, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The government of Japan has just drafted a record-breaking 5.13 trillion yen ($43.5 billion) defense budget plan, aimed at protecting its territory from Chinese military belligerence in the East China Sea and preparing for any instability in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

While The Diplomat describes the increase in defense funding as “modest” — 1.4 percent higher than last year — it is nonetheless more than modern Japan has ever spent on its Self-Defense Forces (Japan does not have a proper military, a result of the resolution of World War II. The outlet notes that much of this funding will go to “six additional F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters… four Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft… 11 AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles, and an additional Soryu-class diesel-electric attack submarine.”

The Diplomat adds that much of the new funding will also go into “cyber resilience technology research,” a sign that Japan is concerned that its highly developed infrastructure may fall target to hackers and cyber-terrorists.

Most of the funding, however, will go to weaponry designed to protect Japan’s Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited land mass in the East China Sea that Beijing claims as its own. In addition to the aforementioned attack submarine, CNN notes that six surveillance submarines are part of the budget. The draft budget specifically mentions threats to the Senkakus and allots $1.8 billion to the Coast Guard for eight new ships, a 12 percent increase in funding.

In addition to increasing funding, Japan is also set to expand the military’s permissions to act in peacetime. Namely, Asahi Shimbun reports that the Self-Defense Forces will now be permitted to act in the defense of American ships as well as Japanese ones, even without a declaration of war. “The deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance will be further strengthened, and the peace and safety of Japan will be secured to a greater degree,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said. Asahi describes a possible use of this new permission as “escorting U.S. naval vessels on patrol against enemy ballistic missile launches,” a move with the potential to intimidate North Korea as much as it would China.

China has long claimed the “Diaoyu” islands, as Beijing calls them, as well as most of the South China Sea, where Japan does not lay any territorial claims but does have allies who refute Beijing’s claims. Tensions in the East China Sea peaked in 2013, when China announced it would establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Senkaku Islands. Such a zone requires any non-Chinese aircraft to identify itself to Beijing while flying over the islands, meaning Japanese planes would have to tell China where they were flying while within sovereign Japanese airspace.

Japan repeatedly ignored the ADIZ and President Barack Obama warned that, should China attack a Japanese aircraft, the United States was treaty-bound to attack China, rendering the ADIZ largely unenforceable without the risk of a world war.

Instead, China turned its eye to the South China Sea, where it has been constructing artificial islands and filling them with military assets despite their presence in Philippine and Vietnamese waters. Upon Japan expressing concern over China’s colonization of the region, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun said in September, “If Japan wants to have joint patrols or drills in waters under Chinese jurisdiction this really is playing with fire. China’s military will not sit idly by.”

China maintains that the foreign waters in the South China Sea it has usurped are sovereign Chinese territory.

China must now field an emboldened Japan in light of a new American presidential administration that appears to view Beijing as its most pressing threat. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to challenge China’s claims in the region as well as force the Communist Party into trade deals that benefit the American people more than they have in the past. Trump has also publicly challenged the “One China” policy — the notion that America must not challenge China’s claims to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang — and appears poised to bring China’s rivals closer into the American fold.

Paramount among these is Shinzo Abe, Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister, under whose leadership Japan’s defense budget has now reached record highs. Abe was the first world leader to meet with Trump personally after his election in November, calling Trump a “trustworthy leader” and sending Chinese propaganda outlets reeling with alarm.

Abe appears dedicated to strengthening Japanese-American ties. The Prime Minister is set to visit Pearl Harbor — the first to do so since 1951 — next week, a visit seen by many as a positive response to President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima earlier this year. Abe is expected to “express the value of reconciliation between Japan and the United States” in Hawaii, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, but not apologize, just as President Obama did not apologize for America’s use of nuclear weapons during World War II.

Akie Abe, Japan’s First Lady, visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year in what Japanese officials called a “personal” visit to pray for the dead, while Shinzo Abe was in Brazil to receive hosting duties for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Japan’s First Lady has on occasion challenged her husband’s political views, leading observers to believe her personal visit was not a reflection of Shinzo Abe’s desire to visit Pearl Harbor himself.