With China bristling, is Japan upping its military game? Some say no.

Despite a record defense budget and a push for constitutional reforms, Prime Minister Abe's initiatives may not match his tough talk.

Toru Hanai/Reuters/File
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (l.) reviews members of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) during the JSDF Air Review, to celebrate 60 years since the service's founding, at Hyakuri air base in Omitama, northeast of Tokyo, October 26, 2014.

Following an ostentatious display in Beijing of military firepower at the "70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" parade last week, Tokyo may find it easier to justify its increased defense budget.

But even as the Japanese and foreign media highlight a “record” new budget put forward by a hawkish prime minister, there is little to suggest that Shinzo Abe plans a serious expansion of his country's armed forces.

That analysis, shared by specialists in Tokyo and Washington, runs counter to the perception that Japan is in a military race with the People’s Liberation Army. In recent years, China's military has engaged in hundreds of incursions into the airspace and waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands, south of Okinawa. But Tokyo’s anticipated defense budget is not a real answer to those provocations, they say. 

In fact, despite Abe’s efforts to stoke a greater martial spirit in longtime pacifist Japan, there is little appetite for military adventure among the population. A WIN/Gallup poll earlier this year found Japanese was the least willing in the world to fight, at 11 percent. The corresponding figure in China was 71 percent. There are also suggestions here that efforts to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist Constitution have raised concerns in the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) about how prepared they are to engage an enemy.

Words louder than actions

To be sure, Prime Minister Abe has rankled both Beijing and Washington with his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – where 14 World War II Class A war criminals are memorialized – and with pronouncements downplaying Japan's wartime brutality. But many argue his words have been louder than his actions.

The US, as Tokyo's main military backer and ally, would like to see Japan bolster its defense capabilities in the face of a more powerful and assertive China.

"Japan has underspent on defense for decades, having relied on US forces to provide defense coverage that would have otherwise cost hundreds of billions of dollars," says former US Marine Col. Grant Newsham, now a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. "The current increase is illusory and has no real meaning in terms of improving operational capabilities or Japan's overall defense." 

"China's heavy defense spending and the development of new and advanced equipment and hardware have changed the military balance," says Mr. Newsham.

Japan's Ministry of Defense has requested a budget of about 5 trillion yen ($42.3 billion) for the year beginning April 2016, an increase of 2.2 percent. This would be the third successive hike in defense spending, though that follows a period of decline.

"This is only a modest increase in the military budget, and if you look at the figures, it just takes it back to the equivalent level of 10 years ago," says a Japanese government defense source, who was not allowed to be identified.

On the military's shopping list are American-made F-35 Stealth fighter jets, Osprey airplane-helicopter hybrids, AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles, and Global Hawk drones. With money also earmarked for radar stations and bolstering bases near the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diayou, there is little doubt about the where the budget is aimed.

"Japan and China have deep trading ties now, but in terms of the friction over the islands in the South China Sea, they are also military rivals, though for political reasons the Japanese government can't state that explicitly," says Ikuo Kayahara, a former JSDF major general and professor emeritus at Tokyo's Takushoku University.

Prof. Kayahara believes the JSDF would currently struggle to retake the Senkaku Islands if they were invaded by the Chinese military, and would need to rely on US forces.

"Although America is obliged to protect us under the terms of the security treaty, as a country, we can't always be riding on their back and expecting them to help us out. That's why we have to make it possible for the Self-Defense Forces to protect itself and its allies, as well as increase the defense budget," says Kayahara, referring to the reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution by the Abe government to allow 'collective self-defense' in the event of an ally of Japan being attacked.

Rumblings in the defense force ranks

The constitutional changes, which faced blowback at home and from China and South Korea, have left the JSDF in a difficult position, according to Takashi Koyama, professor of international politics at Akita International University and a critic of the Abe regime.

"JSDF personnel are worried about the changes to the collective defense rules because the law doesn't allow them to respond effectively. They will have to wait until they are fired upon before they can shoot back, but that could [prove] fatal," says Prof. Koyama.

"If one of the JSDF was kidnapped in the Middle East, for example, they couldn't use force to rescue their comrade," says Koyama.

Rumblings of dissatisfaction in the military have been growing, according to Koyama, who predicts recent anonymous complaints in the media will soon turn into a public row.

However, Koyama doesn't believe that "the Japanese public is buying into the argument of the threat from China as a reason to increase the defense budget." He says the public wants a greater focus from Abe on fixing the nation's economic problems. 

Newsham, who served as the first US Marine Liaison Officer to the JSDF, discounts the argument that the increase will overstretch Japan, given the size of its economy. He adds that Beijing's portrayal of the country's leadership as warmongering is far off the mark.

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