Japan Boosts Defense Spending, More Or Less

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Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, reviews troops during a ceremony in Tokyo last week. Abe has largely dropped the hawkish stance he took in last fall’s elections.

TOKYO – Locked in an increasingly-tense territorial dispute with China, Japan announced this week it will boost defense spending for the first time in more than a decade.  Coming from Japan’s conservative new government, that might sound ominous.

But, in fact, the spending increase is modest at best, and does little to directly challenge China’s rising military ambitions – and right now, maybe that’s a good thing.

The plan announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls for spending 4.68 trillion yen ($52 billion) on defense in 2013, an increase of 0.8%. It’s the first time since 2003 that Japan’s annual defense spending will rise.

The extra money will go mostly to boosting surveillance flights and improving intelligence-gathering capabilities in Japan’s southwestern islands. That’s where China is aggressively pressing its claim on a group of uninhabited islets controlled by Japan.  It will also boost troop levels for Japan’s Self Defense Forces (JSDF).

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But given China’s double-digit increases in defense spending over the last decade, and given Abe’s hawkish rhetoric during his election campaign last fall, the spending hike is far more modest that some had hoped, or others had feared.

“The fact that defense spending will increase is important for symbolic reasons, but it doesn’t mean much in terms of a real increase in defense capabilities. Realistically, China’s defense budget is growing so rapidly, there’s no way we can compete with that,” says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Overall, defense spending will rise by just 35.1 billion yen ($386 million); that’s less than a third of what a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy committee recommended a few weeks ago (it’s also about how much the Pentagon spends each day before lunch).

Japan’s annual defense spending will remain under the informal cap of 1% of GDP, which many thought Abe would exceed; by comparison, China spends an estimated 2% of its GDP on defense, and the United States, 4%.

JSDF manpower will rise by a grand total of 300 troops – out of a force of 227,000.

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A separate economic stimulus package includes 212 billion yen ($2.3 billion) for base improvements, communications equipment and existing missile defense programs. The Coast Guard, a nominally civilian agency, will get a two-percent hike to buy new ships and build a new base in the southwestern islands.

In most respects, however, the new defense budget varies little from the spending plan set out by the Democratic Party of Japan, which the LDP soundly beat last year.

The relatively-modest increase may reflect both Japan’s fiscal realities and Abe’s seemingly ambiguous commitment to defense. During the campaign, he spoke passionately of revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution, defending territorial claims and reviewing contentious historical issues. But since taking office he has focused almost solely on reviving Japan’s flagging economy, with considerable public approval, apparently: a poll released Sunday showed support for Abe’s Cabinet had risen from 62% to almost 67% since taking office last month.

Indeed, Abe seems to be working hard to tamp down the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu. Chinese maritime surveillance vessels have entered territorial waters around the islands repeatedly in recent months, and Japan has sent fighter jets to warn off Chinese surveillance planes. China has responded by scrambling its own fighter jets, with potentially dire consequences.

Abe sent an envoy to Beijing last week with a personal letter for new leader Xi Jinping; perhaps significantly, China eased its own overheated rhetoric in responding to the new defense budget.

“We hope the Japanese side will stick to the path of peaceful development, respect the concerns of countries in the region, take history as a mirror and do more things conducive to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said this week.

All this could change, of course. The new budget is subject to negotiations in the Diet before it goes into effect in April. The LDP has announced plans to re-write the National Defense Program Guidelines adopted two years ago that established a more “dynamic” defense strategy. And Abe is working hard to fix the economy with a view toward winning control of the Diet’s upper house in July, which would give him a freer hand over domestic and foreign policies.

Then, perhaps, things might get ominous.

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