The Japanese government and Western news outlets are highlighting Tokyo’s commitment to increase its military spending for the third straight year. Pundits and policy experts see the boost as a response to the spike in bilateral tensions with China—especially the bitter dispute concerning sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. But as with similar moves by the Baltic republics and Washington’s other NATO allies that reflect worries about Russia’s recent behavior, there is more symbolism than substance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision.
Japan’s defense budget for the fiscal year beginning in April will be 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion). The increase is quite modest—up from 4.84 trillion yen in the current year. Moreover, even the larger sum is less than half of China’s official military budget and less than one-third of what the Pentagon and most independent experts believe is Beijing’s actual level of spending. Although Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” already can deploy a significant amount of modern weaponry, such a large disparity in spending is cause for concern.
That is especially true since Abe’s government has adopted an increasingly assertive posture toward China on a range of issues. In one sense, U.S. officials have reason to be gratified by that move and Tokyo’s greater overall interest in East Asia’s security. Japan finally seems to be taking steps to become a normal great power regarding military matters instead of clinging to pacifism and relying on the United States to protect important Japanese interests. Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which officially places draconian restraints on the military, also reflect the shift in thinking.