Military focus not right move for Japan PM Abe

Japanese Premier must also craft diplomatic strategy to engage China

PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe's resort to the use of enhanced military power to try to counterbalance a rising China underlines his failure to put more emphasis on diplomacy to engage Beijing.

His Cabinet approved a defence package on Tuesday that comprises the nation's first-ever national security strategy that covers the next 10 years, and guidelines for purchasing military hardware to implement that strategy.

Though the security strategy is supposed to be based on a mix of diplomacy and defence policy, Mr Abe's focus is on increasing his country's arms spending, a level that had remained largely unchanged for a decade.

The redeployment of troops to Japan's south-western flank and the beefing up of military hardware to protect outlying islands in the area are clearly directed at China, with whom Japan is locked in a simmering territorial dispute.

In recent months, Beijing has increased maritime activities near Japan, at times even breaching territorial waters and airspace around the disputed Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu and also claim.

Tokyo is also peeved by Beijing's desire for access to the Western Pacific for its naval vessels via Japan's south-west.

But Japan's huge shopping list that includes fighter jets, drones and amphibious vehicles to upgrade its military capability hardly jives with the mantra in the national security strategy that says Japan remains a peace-loving nation and that the new build-up plan is all in accordance with Mr Abe's policy of proactive pacifism.

"To him, pacifism means freeing Japan from its so-called Peace Constitution and increasing the country's military role," said the leading Asahi Shimbun in a hard-hitting editorial.

"Mr Abe must not mistake his security strategy for pacifism," the headline said.

As pointed out in a commentary in the influential Nikkei business daily, the enhancement of Japan's security does not lie in arms build-up but in "crafting a shrewd diplomatic strategy" alongside its defence policy.

Besides, achieving a stronger defence of Japan's south-western islands could take 10 years or so.

In the meantime, the military balance will continue to be in China's favour.

The Chinese defence budget is already more than twice that of Japan and expected to climb further, and its fighter jets and submarines already outnumber the Japanese fleets.

Mr Abe puts the blame squarely on the Chinese for refusing to hold summit talks.

But neither has he made much effort to find a way out of the stalemate.

Taking the Prime Minister to task, the Mainichi Shimbun daily said: "Saying the door to dialogue is open is not enough. He must make more efforts to create the environment for such a dialogue."

There is also the danger that Japan's defence spending could escalate.

The country's previous defence spending programme in 2010 called for the acquisition of only a "moderate" defence capacity.

Mr Abe has replaced this with a demand for a "highly effective and integrated defence capability".

The new security strategy appears to be the first step towards achieving his vision of a normalised military.

He is keen for Japan to take part in collective self-defence through a reinterpretation of the Constitution.

This was not mentioned in the security strategy but is likely to take place as early as the middle of next year.

The final step would be changing the name of Japan's de facto military from "Self Defence Force" to "national armed forces", just like in other countries.