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Japan's hawks unveil sweeping defense upgrades

Dec. 17, 2013 - 04:15PM   |  
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the press Dec. 17 after a cabinet meeting at his office in Tokyo. Japan said it intends to boost military spending by five percent over the next five years. (Jiji Press / Getty Images)
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TOKYO — Moving from decades-long pacifism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday said Japan will significantly boost defense spending for drones, fighter jets and naval destroyers to challenge the growing military threats from a rising China.

Abe unveiled a sweeping five-year national security strategy that will extend Japan’s military reach further into the East China Sea, which China claims it owns and has recently taken steps to assert control over.

The announcement comes after weeks of threats from China’s People’s Liberation Army, which demanded that the ships or planes of other nations seek permission from China when traversing the massive sea that the United States considers international waters.

“The security situation around Japan has become even more severe and in order to maintain peace it is necessary to implement national security policies in a more strategic and structured manner,” Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday.

“This does not in any way change Japan’s pacifist policies, which have been consistent throughout the postwar period,” the ministry said.

A focus of Abe’s new plan is to shift troops and equipment to the nation’s southwest territories that include the Senkaku Islands, a chain that China says belongs to it, and reflects Japan’s willingness to ease postwar restrictions on the armed forces.

Japan’s Constitution bars the nation from possessing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential.” The wording of he document was demanded by U.S. military forces as part of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Abe’s plan would alter the definition of self-defense to include action on behalf of allies under attack.

China accused Japan of acting in “unwise” fashion.

“If Japan really hopes to return itself to the ranks of a ‘normal country’, it should face up to its aggression in history and cooperate with its Asian neighbors instead of angering them with rounds and rounds of unwise words and policies,” state-run Xinhua news agency said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Manila for talks with Philippine officials, said the guidelines reflect the “joint vision of Japan-U.S. cooperation in terms of security for the region and elsewhere.”

“This is not a sudden response to something or anything that anybody should get particularly upset about,” Kerry said.

The plan is a reflection of Japan’s growing concerns over China’s increasing military assertiveness and territorial demands.

Under the plan, which sets out both policy and budget goals, Japan will spend some $240 billion over the next five years on new equipment and related costs.

Surveillance drones and long-range surveillance planes will be acquired to patrol the East China Sea and other waters surrounding Japan. Nearly half of Japan’s ground forces will be reconfigured for rapid deployment.

Significantly, a special Marine Corps-like unit will be organized to guard Japan’s southwest islands, which sprawl across a vast area of ocean south of Japan’s main islands. For the first time, Japan will buy V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, amphibious assault vehicles and other equipment designed primarily for amphibious warfare.

“This is a sensible plan and it’s long overdue,” said Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo, and a former Marine Corps liaison with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force.

“It lays out a road map of how the Japan Self Defense Force will transform into something more capable and more able to defend Japan. And it’s one more step in the psychological change Japan has to make in order to play a part in its own defense. It doesn’t call for replacing the Americans, but it does see Japan playing something closer to a proper role.”

Under the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, U.S. forces are obligated to defend Japan if its territory comes under attack. The Obama administration says it takes no position in territorial disputes, but has pointedly declared that the Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, fall under the treaty.

Some 50,000 U.S. troops and the powerful U.S. 7th Fleet are based in Japan.

Japanese officials have voiced increasing concerns about Chinese military activity in the region in recent years, including creation of a new air defense zone last month that includes the disputed islands.

China’s People’s Liberation Army has overseen sustained increases in military budgets for years. It has expanded nuclear and ballistic-missile arsenals, boosted cyberwarfare programs, is building up a navy that can sail worldwide, and is developing anti-satellite weapons systems.

Abe, a conservative, came to power as China stepped up its military expansion and aggressive claims in the East China Sea and elsewhere. He regained office in a landslide a year ago, promising to focus on Japan’s flagging economy.

Earlier this month, he established Japan’s first National Security Council, which will concentrate decision making in the prime minister’s office. Last week he pushed through a controversial national defense secrets law.

The new plan is an important step forward, but does not signal a resurgence in Japanese militarism, said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program, at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“We’ve been talking about defending remote islands since 1994 but we haven’t done anything about it. This is the first step in making that happen in the real world,” Michishita said. “It’s not about competing with China. We are trying to demonstrate our determination to maintain a balance of power in the region. I don’t know if it’s enough, but it’s the best we can do.”

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