With the obvious exception of China, no nation in the region has seen as big an upturn in its proposed defense budget as Japan.
Japan’s 2014 defense budget request, lodged in December, asks for a 3% increase in defense spending over 2013 levels. The previous government had planned a 1.3% decrease to a budget that had seen ten consecutive contractions since 2003.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, the Japanese government has taken a markedly more militarized stance than its predecessors. Mooted plans to dispense with non-aggression aspects of the nation’s constitution have ruffled regional feathers.
Last May, Abe was pictured in the cockpit of a T-4 jet trainer, smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign during a visit to the Air Self-Defense Force’s base at Higashimatsushima. What elevated an ordinary photo call to the level of an international incident was that the aircraft Abe chose to sit in bore the number 731, directly beneath the cockpit. Between 1932 and 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army’s Unit 731 conducted biological and chemical weapons research, including on human prisoners of war from China, Russia and Korea.
In December, two months after China had declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone over a group of islands administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan, Abe again appeared to snub his nose at convention by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine was founded in 1869 and honours nearly 2.5 million Japanese who died while serving their country; in a series of moves beginning in the 1950s, it began to include individuals convicted of war crimes during the Second World War. Initially, these admissions were of Class C and Class B war criminals, but in 1978, 14 people categorized as Class A war criminals were enshrined. Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine since 2006, and visits between 2001 and 2006 by the then leader, Junichiro Koizumi, are considered to have negatively affected relationships between Japan and its regional neighbours.
China’s military expansion has been cited as the key driver to Japan’s increased defense spending. “China is attempting to change the status quo by force in the skies and seas of the East China Sea and South China Sea,” states an explanation of the budget requests. “China’s stance toward other countries and military moves, coupled with a lack of transparency regarding its military and national security policies, represent a concern to Japan and the wider international community.”
One research program for which funding is requested will seek to develop a ground-based fire-control radar to counter stealthy targets, such as the Chinese J-20 fighter. A dedicated amphibious unit would be created for the defense of the disputed islands.