Japan ups military spending 50 percent, to counter China, Russia

With North Korea’s test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week sparking fears of a conflict with China and Russia, Japan’s government decided to add $6.75 billion to its military budget to boost its air and sea defenses.

The allocation includes 2,600 new ground troops, four radar stations in the sea and the addition of 300 anti-submarine fighter jets, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Monday.

While Japanese public opposition is intense over increasing spending on defense and the threat from North Korea, the increase of 50 percent for 2020 is still much less than the increase from the next fiscal year. The Japanese government is concerned that opposition to increased military spending could torpedo the 2020 general election.

“This is a fairly minor increase,” said Jorge Branco, senior associate at the Northeast Asia Program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not a huge percentage, and it’s basically in line with what defense procurement should be.”

Branco said the timing of the increase is coincidental with North Korea and China’s increased military spending.

“There’s no question that this time period represents a short window of opportunity,” he said. “At the same time, there is absolutely no question the Japanese defense budget has lagged the U.S. in terms of high spending.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed aggressively for increased defense spending since he took office in late 2012, aiming to position the country as a full-spectrum military partner of the United States.

Abe this year formally lifted the country’s self-imposed ban on collective self-defense, which means Japan could consider intervening in a war on behalf of its U.S. ally.

The U.S. allies Japan to focus on developing naval and air defense capabilities, both of which Abe says are key to the region. In the fall, Abe announced a plan to reduce the number of Japanese troops stationed overseas from 10,000 to 3,500 by 2030 to address the public backlash to increases in defense spending.

Japanese hawks have criticized his handling of the military spending debate, which has in the past involved relying on the U.S. military for protection.

Japanese leaders agreed to the military spending increase during a summit last month hosted by President Donald Trump in Washington.

“The Abe government has repeatedly made it clear that it will move ahead with the defense buildup,” Onodera said. “It’s only appropriate that the Japan increases its defense capabilities through increased defense spending.”

Trump assured Abe that the U.S. will stand by its ally in the face of North Korea’s weapons development, although fears of a war on the Korean Peninsula remain.

Onodera said the Japanese military would continue to “deter, disrupt and defeat” North Korea with diplomacy and sanctions.

Branco said the U.S. would likely push for increased Japanese defense spending as well.

“In the long run, we can only rely on each other to do what we need to do,” he said.

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