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Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration had decided to raise the defence budget for the first time in 11 years. The government called for spending 4.68 trillion yen (US$52 billion) on defence, an increase of 0.8% from last year, in the new fiscal year which will begin this April.

The increase in defence budget was justified by the argument that Japan has in recent years engaged in a number of territorial disputes with its neighbours, including the conflicts over Senkaku/Diaoyu with China, Takeshima/Dokdo with South Korea and the Kuril Islands with Russia.

Last year, the overlapping claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu instigated angry protests among patriotic Chinese in several Chinese cities, threatening Japanese business in the country. Some Japanese firms were compelled to withdraw their investments in China due to the precarious political situation. Bilateral ties reached their lowest point in decades.

Playing with the theme of “defending the nation”, Prime Minister Abe, a nationalist himself, explained away the surge in defence budget as a way to strengthen Japan amid hostile neighbours. This was also a part of Japan’s re-adjusting its military position despite the fact that the constitution has prohibited any projects on military modernisation.

The Time’s Kirk Spitzer reported that the extra budget will be mainly spent on enhancing surveillance flights and improving intelligence-gathering capabilities in the East China Sea where Japan has entered into fierce territorial claims with China. A portion of this budget will also be used to boost troop levels for Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF).

The rise in the defence budget might have been a sensitive topic in Japan. This was because some critics perceived it as a challenge to Japan’s constitution, and more importantly to the regional peace and stability. Surely, an aim at reinforcing the Japanese army has been carefully watched by the Chinese counterpart. It will deepen mutual suspicion and distrust. Possibly, it could also complicate the already fragile conflict between the two countries.

That is one reality. In another reality, Japan’s overall defence budget is relatively modest comparing with its spending in other areas. Certainly, this increased amount is by far much smaller than China’s defence budget.

American journalist Keith Richburg unveiled that China’s military spending has been rapidly spiralling upward, and the growing amounts have been unnerving Beijing’s Asian neighbours and policy planners in the Pentagon, who were openly wary about the country’s long-term intentions. China has involved in an outstanding territorial disputes in the South China Sea with four members of ASEAN—Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

“Getting a handle on Chinese military spending is difficult because much of it is opaque and off the books, such as the People’s Liberation Army’s spending on research and space exploration. But various international think tanks estimate that China’s military spending has risen from about US$20 billion in 2002 to at least US$120 billion in 2011”, said Richburg.

The United States still spends four times as much on its military. But by some accounts, China is on course to surpass the United States in total military spending by 2035. In this context, Japan’s defence budget looks “tiny” and will prevent the country from emerging as a military power anytime soon.

Abe emphasised that this move would help bring the money into the Japanese economy to reduce the impact of decades-old economic recession. Politically, Abe has attempted to recreate a new Japan, with national pride and courage, in standing up against China; this in turn would add up a deeper sense of legitimacy to his own government.

But counterbalancing the Chinese power could just be Abe’s rhetoric, particularly if one would evaluate Japan’s defence budget through a regional perspective. Last week, he sent his envoy to Beijing to meet with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, presumably to try to cool down the conflict over their territorial claims. But his action sent out a conflicting message—wanting to protect the national interest against the Chinese but also needing to pacify with China to create an environment for economic recovery at the same time.

So far, there has been no response from Southeast Asian nations. None has yet to voice concerns about Japan’s desire to firm up its military troops. Cynically, some may even wish to see a stronger Japan, militarily, to alleviate the influence of China in the region.

Prime Minister Abe is expected to submit the draft budget to the Diet before it goes into effect in the next three months. The Times also informed that a recent poll showed that the Japanese have more confidence in the new government. Its popularity has risen from 62% to almost 67% since taking office in December last year.

Aside from the budget issue, the government has announced several plans to revise the National Defence Programme Guidelines, adopted in 2011 and designed to draw up a more dynamic defence strategy. If completed, the Japanese army would be assigned more responsibilities, particularly in realm of foreign affairs.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

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