TOKYO — Japan needs to boost its military spending to counter the potential threat from China's increasingly powerful armed forces and North Korea's long-range missiles, its defense minister said Tuesday.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Japan cannot afford to be complacent over what he said are significant security issues in the region. His ministry announced last week it is seeking a 3 percent increase in defense spending for the coming year, the biggest increase it has requested in 22 years.
Onodera said the increase reflects growing concern in Japan that it must move to counter a more assertive Chinese military amid territorial disputes over uninhabited southern islands. He also noted that North Korea has the ability to strike targets within Japan — including U.S. bases where about 50,000 American troops are stationed — and said Japan's military must be fully prepared to respond with its allies to any contingency with the North.
"There are various tensions ongoing in Asia, and in some cases, there are countries that even use threats," he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a strong advocate of strengthening Japan's military despite the country's other economic pressures, including the massive costs of reconstruction and decontamination following the nuclear disaster triggered by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan's northern shoreline in 2011. Japan's defense spending has been declining steadily for 11 years, although it increased slightly this year.
Abe has also sought to spark a debate about revising the nation's postwar constitution, which restricts the activities of the military to national defense, so that it would be able to participate more freely in international peacekeeping operations and joint missions with its allies, particularly the United States, a position that Washington backs.
One of the top priorities for Japan is to step up surveillance around the southern islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and it hopes to do so by adding drones to its forces and basing more troops in the area, though not on the uninhabited islands themselves.
The government is considering acquiring the Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that can fly like a helicopter or a conventional fixed-wing airplane, along with the unarmed Global Hawk drone, which is one of the most advanced in the world and would provide Japan with the capability of carrying out longer missions than its manned counterparts.
Japan also will be introducing into its air force the F-35 fighter jet, another showcase aircraft that is superior to fighters used by China or Russia and would bring its air defenses more in sync with those of the United States.
Last month, Japan unveiled its biggest warship since World War II, a huge flat-top destroyer that has raised eyebrows in China and elsewhere because it bears a strong resemblance to a conventional aircraft carrier. China recently began operations with its first aircraft carrier and is reportedly planning to build more.
The Japanese ship, which has a flight deck that is nearly 250 meters (820 feet) long, is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Japanese officials say it will be used in national defense — particularly in anti-submarine warfare and border-area surveillance missions — and to bolster the nation's ability to transport personnel and supplies in response to large-scale natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Though defense outlay increases generally face criticism from Japan's neighbors, who harbor bitter memories of Japan's militarist adventurism during World War II, and a skeptical public, officials have tried to soften the move by stressing — as they did with the warship — that having better-equipped troops will improve the nation's ability to respond to domestic natural disasters.
Japan's military played an unprecedentedly large role in disaster assistance after the tsunami, and its public support levels soared afterward.