For the First Time in 11 Years, Japan Is Beefing Up Its Military

China's increasingly aggressive stance in the East China Sea has prompted a shift in Tokyo's approach to the country's military.

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A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) escort ship leads other vessels during a fleet review in waters off Sagami, south of Tokyo, on October 14, 2012. (AP)

My phone has been ringing this week with journalists and others asking for clarification on what Japan is doing with its defense policy. The tone of the questions reveal the growing concern about the security dynamics in Northeast Asia, and specifically the growing worry that Japan and China could be headed for an even more serious clash over disputed islands.

So first let's sort through the various announcements on defense policy emanating from Tokyo.

Is the Japanese defense budget going to be raised by 2.6 percent? Looks like it. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) will request 120 billion yen ($1.3 billion) more in fiscal year 2013 than it did last year. The Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) Policy Research Council supported this request in a highly publicized statement on January 7. The budget has yet to be decided and there are negotiations still ahead; however, we should expect Japan's defense spending to go up. This will be the first increase in eleven years for MOD.

The fiscal year 2012 supplementary budget approved today by the Abe cabinet also included spending on defense. MOD requested 212 billion yen ($2.4 billion) to spend on telecommunications equipment, base renovations, and missile defense capabilities. The Japan Coast Guard, part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, also requested funds for six additional patrol ships.

Isn't this shocking? No. Relatively speaking, Japan has successfully limited growth in its defense spending over the past decade. Compare for example the growth in annual defense spending by its neighbors. China's defense budget is estimated to have grown by more than 10 percent annually, and South Korea's defense spending has grown from 5 to 10 percent annually. Japan's decision to up its defense spending may be a surprise, but it is long overdue.

Did the Abe cabinet decide to purchase an aircraft carrier? No. (At least, not yet.) This question came from a Chinese journalist, and refers to the request for a helicopter equipped destroyer in next year's budget. Not quite an aircraft carrier, at least of the variety that China just deployed or those that the U.S. Navy maintains. But there is plenty in the new MOD request to signal Japan's concern over its southwestern waters. In addition to the new destroyer, the MOD request includes a submarine, two P-1 reconnaissance aircraft, upgrades to E-767 early warning planes, and other measures devised to up its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

Is this evidence of a rise in Japanese militarism? Hardly. There is a serious debate among policymakers as to whether this is actually sufficient to deal with the growing challenges Japan could face in the years ahead. Prime Minister Abe's new government is widely seen as more hawkish, and thus the interpretation of this budget's meaning differs widely. Martin Fackler's NYT piece early in the week sees this as the new prime minister's effort "to bolster Japan's declining influence," while a WSJ article views this week's announcements in Tokyo as "paltry" and instead admonishes Japan's new prime minister "to get serious about defense, and fast." Expect this conversation to continue as the specifics of Japan's defense policy develop.

Will Prime Minister Abe use this new defense budget to beef up Japan's southwestern (including Senkaku Islands) defenses? Yes, indeed. His predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, already began that process in October last year when he outlined an enhanced budget (17 billion yen, or $190 million) for Japan's coast guard. New patrol ships with upgraded image transmissions systems for their helicopters are already under procurement, with an expected deployment in 2015. In the meantime, older vessels will be extended in service until the newer ships come online. The 11th Regional Fleet based in Naha, Okinawa, has been enhanced to cope with a 24/7 patrol schedule now needed to respond to the increase in Chinese patrols in and around the Senkaku Islands. Moreover, Japan's coast guard will need even more resources if it is to continue to match the growing deployments of Chinese vessels.

Yet again, a transition in Japan's government has resulted in revamping Japan's defense policy, confusing observers about the ultimate aims envisioned for Japan's military. When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power in 2009, it delayed the regular defense planning exercise that produces the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) for a year. The conceptual basis that ultimately came out of that thinking process, however, was novel and widely seen as balanced and effective. With an emphasis on flexibility and readiness, MOD put forward a new "dynamic defense" concept that was in reality the first doctrinal response to the Japan's evolving security environment. Force posture adjustments clearly placed priority on Japan's far strung islands in the southwest, and air and maritime defenses for this region were given top billing.

However, on December 27, Abe's new defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, announced the 2010 NDPG would be abandoned, and another one would be produced by the end of 2013. Given the broad praise for the 2010 NDPG, it seems odd to want to throw it out, and the decision strongly reeks of politics rather than strategy. The imprimatur of the former ruling party may simply have been too distasteful, but in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the rationale for Japan's abrupt decision to up its defense budget now seems less than clear.

This week's mixed signals are bound to feed into the speculation that Japan is poised for a more militarized interaction with its neighbors. The lack of clarity between ends and means muddies the waters. To be sure, Japan's defenses have long had vulnerabilities that need attention. Perhaps a wiser approach would be to go about enhancing those vulnerabilities, quickly and with purpose, without yet another long drawn out -- and potentially deeply politicized -- rewording of what is essentially sound policy.

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