National / Politics

With eye on China, Japan unveils record defense budget

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

The defense budget will swell to a record ¥5.26 trillion for the 2019 fiscal year, the government said Friday, as Tokyo looks to beef up its missile defense and deploy stealth jets in a bid to counter China.

The defense spending was part of a ¥101.46 trillion national budget for the fiscal year starting in April that was approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

The ¥5.26 trillion budget for defense marks a record for the fifth year in a row and covers the cost of introducing the U.S. military’s Aegis Ashore land-based missile interceptor system, Defense Ministry officials said.

The fiscal 2019 allocation covers six F-35A stealth jets, and part of it will be spent on the nation’s first aircraft carriers since World War II. The government will spend ¥70 million to research the plan to upgrade and enable its two Izumo-class flat-top helicopter carriers to transport and launch fighter jets.

The budget is the initial allocation of a new five-year defense plan, announced on Tuesday as the latest in a series of steps under Abe to boost the nation’s military.

Abe’s government argues the efforts are necessary given growing defense challenges in the region, including tensions with North Korea, and particularly “strong concerns” about the expansion of China’s military footprint.

“Japan’s growing defense budget is directly aimed to counter China’s military threat,” said Akira Kato, professor of international politics and regional security at Tokyo’s J.F. Oberlin University.

But the move is controversial, with critics arguing it shifts Tokyo further away from its commitment to strictly defensive capabilities under the pacifist Constitution.

Beijing immediately expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and opposition” to the program unveiled on Tuesday, urging Tokyo “to adhere to a purely defensive policy”.

Last year, China unveiled its first domestically built aircraft carrier as it continues to assert claims in the South China Sea. Its only other carrier, the Liaoning that was commissioned in 2012, is a second-hand Soviet ship built nearly 30 years ago.

Japan’s defense program announcement comes after pledges to buy more U.S. military equipment following pressure from President Donald Trump. Under the draft budget, the government earmarked ¥68.1 billion to purchase six U.S. F-35A stealth fighters. The Defense Ministry initially estimated the cost at ¥91.6 billion but reduced it by deciding to import finished products, rather than assembling parts in Japan.

Trump has repeatedly complained about Washington’s huge trade deficit with Tokyo and also urged Abe to expand the country’s defensive capacity.

For his part, Abe has campaigned for years to amend the Constitution, arguing that it ties the hands of the country’s Self-Defense Forces even in protecting the country’s allies from attack.

Expenditures for the realignment of U.S. Forces Japan decreased 22.3 percent to ¥167.9 billion, including an outlay of ¥61.1 billion to proceed with the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.