PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe has signalled Japan's plans to ramp up its military capacity to better protect far-flung islands and also to deal with a rising China.
As part of a defence package approved by the Cabinet yesterday, Japan announced a five-year plan to buy stealth fighters, drones, submarines and other military hardware that will cost a total of 24.7 trillion yen (S$301 billion), or 1.2 trillion yen more than the previous plan in 2010. Defence spending increased in real terms for the first time since 2003.
The package is a bid by Mr Abe to normalise Japan's Self Defence Force (SDF), which has been officially pacifist since its establishment after World War II.
The National Defence Programme Guidelines approved yesterday also state that Japan is enhancing its security alliance with the United States to provide a higher deterrent effect.
Integration of the three arms of SDF, a concept introduced in the Guidelines, will focus mostly on outlying islands in the country's south-western flank, including the disputed Senkaku which China calls Diaoyu and also claims.
Should those islands be invaded, the army will land on the islands using amphibious vehicles in a bid to retake the territory, and will be supported by the air force and navy in its mission.
For that purpose, the Cabinet has authorised the purchase of 52 amphibious vehicles. The government will also buy 99 mobile combat vehicles, which move faster than traditional tanks, and 17 tilt-rotor hybrid transport planes. Japan's air force will get 28 F-35A jet fighters and three aerial refuelling planes.
The Guidelines describe China's rising military activities in the East China Sea, including Beijing's declaration of an air defence zone that includes the disputed Senkaku islands, as "concerns for regional and global security".
Besides China, the Guidelines also identify North Korea's nuclear programme as posing a "serious" threat to Japan's security.
But the Abe administration's national security strategy, which the Cabinet also endorsed, made clear that China is Japan's main security bugbear.
"China has rapidly expanded and intensified its activities in the sea and airspace around Japan, including intrusion into Japan's territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku islands," it said, adding that the issue was of concern to "the international community, including Japan".
But China's Foreign Ministry suggested it was Japan, not China, that was cause for concern.
"We urge Japan to… respect regional countries' fair and reasonable security concerns," said ministry spokesman Hua Chunying.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Manila, voiced support for Japan's newly announced plan, which he said had been planned beforehand with the US.
Experts say the new build-up programme is not excessive.
"It reflects a much more severe assessment of China's rise than in 2010, especially in maritime activities. Therefore, there is a need for SDF to be more resilient. I think our response is a sensible one," said Associate Professor Ken Jimbo of Keio University.
Urging caution, Professor Hideki Uemura of Ryutsu Keizai University told the NHK public network: "In order not to start an arms race in the region, we need a balanced defence capacity. But my impression is that Japan is focused only on its build-up plan."