New guidelines approved by the cabinet said Tokyo will introduce a “dynamic joint defense force”, intended to help air, land and sea forces work together more effectively.
The Prime Minister said the shift would allow Japan’s military to better shoulder its responsibilities on the global stage, through what he has promoted as “proactive pacifism”.
Spending will be raised to 24.7 trillion yen over five years from April 2014, up from the present 23.5 trillion yen over the five years to March 2014.
New hardware will include three drones, 52 amphibious vehicles, 17 Osprey hybrid choppers and five submarines — all designed to boost maritime surveillance and bolster defense of islands.
The spending will also encompass two destroyers equipped with the Aegis anti-missile system and 28 new F-35 fighter jets, a stealth plane far superior to the F-15s that Japan currently has in service.
“The guidelines underscore a clear shift of Japan’s major defense focus to the protection of its islands in the East China Sea,” said Hideshi Takesada, an expert on regional security at Takushoku University in Tokyo.
During the Cold War, Japan’s military was largely static, with the majority of resources in the north and east to guard against any invasion by Russia.
But changing dynamics and in particular the rise of China — where double-digit rises in defense spending are the annual norm — mean that Japan’s armed forces need to be located further south and to be able to deploy to the country’s many far-flung islands.
“The guidelines show Japan’s readiness for practical defense if China’s bluff turns to be real military action,” Takesada said.
Regional tensions were ratcheted up last month when China abruptly declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, including over disputed Tokyo-controlled islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe on Saturday denounced the declaration and demanded Beijing retract it immediately and unconditionally, after a summit with Southeast Asian leaders where a joint statement called for freedom of travel on the seas and in the air.
Beijing issued a sharp rebuke, singling out Abe for “slanderous remarks”.
The guidelines also call for Japan to boost its missile defense system to counter “a grave and imminent threat” from North Korea.
Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February, following a rocket test in December 2012.
The recent purging and execution of the uncle of leader Kim Jong-un further set nerves on edge, with analysts warning the isolated nation had become even more unpredictable as it marks the second anniversary of the death of Kim’s father.
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