Japan to boost military spending as China row simmers
Japanese F-15 jets fly in formation during a military review at the Ground Self-Defence Force's Asaka training ground on October 27, 2013
The cabinet of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed 24.7 trillion yen ($240 billion) would be spent between 2014 and 2019, including on drones, submarines, fighter jets and amphibious vehicles, in a strategic shift towards the south and west.
The shopping list is part of efforts by Abe to normalise the military in Japan, which has been officially pacifist since defeat in World War II. Its well-equipped and highly professional services are limited to a narrowly defined self-defensive role.
It comes with the establishment of a US-style National Security Council that is expected to concentrate greater power in the hands of a smaller number of senior politicians and bureaucrats.
Fears are growing in Japan over the rising power of China, with the two countries embroiled in a dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands in the East China Sea, and the perennial menace posed by an unpredictable North Korea.
New defence guidelines approved by the cabinet on Tuesday said Tokyo will introduce a "dynamic joint defence force", intended to help air, land and sea forces work together more effectively.
"China... is taking dangerous action that could draw unexpected contingencies," said the guidelines.
Under the mid-term defence programme, spending will be raised to 24.7 trillion yen over five years from April 2014, up from the present 23.5 trillion yen over the five years to March 2014.
However, this figure may be trimmed by up to 700 billion yen if the defence ministry can take "effective and rational" measures in its procurement.
New hardware would include three drones, 52 amphibious vehicles, 17 Osprey hybrid choppers and five submarines -- all designed to boost maritime surveillance and bolster defence of islands.
It will also mean two destroyers equipped with the Aegis anti-missile system and 28 new F-35 fighter jets, a stealth plane far superior to the F-15s that Japan currently has in service.
"The guidelines underscore a clear shift of Japan's major defence focus to the protection of its islands in the East China Sea," said Hideshi Takesada, an expert on regional security at Takushoku University in Tokyo.
During the Cold War, Japan's military was largely static, with the majority of resources in the north and east to guard against any invasion by Russia.
But changing dynamics and in particular the rise of China -- where double-digit rises in defence spending are the annual norm -- mean that Japan's armed forces need to be located further south and to be able to deploy to the country's many far-flung islands.
"The guidelines show Japan's readiness for practical defence if China's bluff turns to be real military action," Takesada said.
Regional tensions were ratcheted up last month when China abruptly declared a new Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea, including over disputed Tokyo-controlled islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Abe on Saturday denounced the declaration and demanded Beijing retract it immediately and unconditionally, after a summit with Southeast Asian leaders where a joint statement called for freedom of travel on the seas and in the air.
Beijing issued a sharp rebuke, singling out Abe for "slanderous remarks".
The guidelines also call for Japan to boost its missile defence system to counter "a grave and imminent threat" from North Korea.
Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February, following a rocket test in December 2012.
The recent purging and execution of the uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un further set nerves on edge, with analysts warning the isolated nation had become even more unpredictable as it marks the second anniversary of the death of Kim's father.
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