Japan's defence ministry seeks record budget amid security fears about China

Japan's defence ministry is seeking a record 5.48 trillion yen budget. PHOTO: JMSDF/FACEBOOK

TOKYO - Japan's defence ministry on Tuesday (Aug 31) sought an all-time high budget of 5.48 trillion yen (S$67 billion) for the next fiscal year starting April 1, a clear sign of the regional arms race gathering pace.

In a 56-page budget report, the ministry laid out plans to boost its capabilities in emerging security dimensions such as outer space, cyber and electromagnetic weapons, while also fortifying its arsenal of traditional hardware.

Japan has, since last year, seen China as its top security threat.

Tuesday's budget request also comes a month after Japan had for the first time said in its annual defence review that Taiwan's fate is directly linked to its own security as it warned of an "acute sense of tension" amid growing regional tensions.

The ministry's budget request will be subject to review - and possible amendment - by the finance ministry before it is submitted for approval by the Cabinet.

If it is granted, the sum will be a 2.6 per cent rise from this year's approved budget of 5.34 trillion yen. It will mark a tenth consecutive annual increase in the defence budget, and the largest percentage growth since fiscal 2014.

Nonetheless, the defence ministry clued in on another figure in the report - that if medium-term costs such as government aircraft, reorganisation and operational maintenance of American bases in Okinawa are omitted, the request will mark a record 7.0 per cent surge from this year's corresponding figure.

Yet, there are pressures for Japan to control its spending in the light of its worrying fiscal situation, with a debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of 250 per cent.

Media tallies on Tuesday said budget requests across ministries have hit a record 111 trillion yen, also pushed up by social security spending and Covid-19 measures.

The defence ministry, however, made its case for the 2.6 per cent increase, noting the fast worsening security environment around Japan.

"Neighbouring countries are strengthening their military capabilities with a significant rise in defence spending, and Japan must respond correspondingly."

It added that Japan must prioritise the attainment of technological superiority in defence through building technology that are "game-changers".

These include, potentially, electromagnetic weapons that can target drones and other aerial threats, as well as satellites and radar systems.

It is also investing in traditional weaponry such as 12 F-35 stealth fighter jets worth 130 billion yen, two escort vessels worth 111.2 billion yen, and 104.7 billion yen on the research and development of a "next-generation" domestic fighter jet.

Of the 12 F-35 planes, four will be short take-off and vertical landing variants that will operate on the country's two largest Izumo-class warships.

Missile units will also be placed on the island of Ishigaki in Okinawa, so as to strengthen Japan's defences of the south-west island chain, with 139.6 billion yen to be spent on defence against ballistic missiles.

Still, China's defence budget of 1.36 trillion yuan (S$282.7 billion) this year - a 6.8 per cent increase from last year - far eclipses Japan's request of 5.48 trillion yen.

Japanese security experts told The Straits Times that they were disappointed by the budget request as it does not sufficiently keep pace with growing security concerns.

Dr Tosh Minohara, who chairs the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, said that Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, have said in recent months that Japan will not be bound by the artificial 1 per cent GDP cap on defence spending.

Yet, Tuesday's request - even if granted in full - will still be around 1 per cent of Japan's forecast GDP of US$5.3 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) for the next fiscal year.

"It is very much psychological and a far cry from actual needs," Dr Minohara told ST, adding that Japan, unlike China, includes research and development costs in its defence budget, which means the actual spending on operational needs is much lesser.

Dr Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute, agreed that Japan ought to do more.

But he saw moves including the development of stand-off missiles and intended purchases of sensors and radars as a potential precursor of the country moving towards acquiring first-strike capabilities in the name of deterrence.

"The United States has been trying to counter China by cooperating with its allies," he said, noting that Japan's budget request should also be seen in context with how the Quad grouping, which also includes Australia and India, is being strengthened militarily.

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