Japan’s Long-Standing Dispute With China Provokes Boost In Military Spending

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed a boost in military spending following increasing tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with China. This long-standing and ambiguous territorial dispute was aggravated by the former Japanese government’s proposal to nationalize the islands, after purchasing them from a private owner in September 2012. The islands have been at the center of the dispute between Japan and China since 2010, when both countries claimed to own them. This month, Japan’s proposal for increased military spending has further exacerbated the territorial controversy surrounding the islands.

The most recent dispute erupted as a result of the Japanese government’s acquisition of the islands in September 2012. It prompted mass public protests in China, and a number of Chinese patrol ships have been seen lingering in Japan’s territorial waters near the islands since the exchange between the Japanese government and the private owner of the islands was made public. Hong Lei, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing that the presence of the patrol ships is normal since the islands, called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyus in Chinese, are Chinese territory.

This tension has significantly weakened the business relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. “The problem is that harm is being caused to Japanese companies and Japanese nationals in China, who are contributing to the Chinese economy and to society, to achieve political objects,” said Mr Abe at a recent news conference.

Despite Mr Abe’s concerns about rectifying the business relationship between the two countries, their political relationship seems increasingly unstable. The Economist reports that Japan is not the only country to propose a boost in military spending, but that at the last Communist Party Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao, the party’s former leader, declared China’s own ambition to “build itself into a maritime power,” a notion that Xi Jinping, the party’s current leader, hopes will achieve the nation dream of a “Chinese renaissance.” However, following Japan’s request for a military budget boost of 100bn yen ($1.15bn), China has criticized Japan’s decision as being politically “provocative.”


Military spending proposals unveiled

Japan’s proposals for an increase in military spending are the first to surface in a decade. However, according to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Japan’s annual defence budget (based on the year ending March 2012) is already 4.65 trillion yen ($53bn). The Yomiuri newspaper printed details that suggested the increase in military expenditure would justify research into a new radar system and maintenance costs for aircrafts. The Journal of International Relations suggests that Shinzo Abe has “made it clear” that these will be used specifically for the territorial dispute over what the Japanese call the Senkaku islands.

Mr Abe’s proposal to increase the defence budget as a direct consequence of the countries’ dispute seems to dangerously contradict with his request for cool-headed dialogue with China. Public demonstrations have been raging in both Tokyo and Beijing since 2010 as a result of the dispute over the islands. However, Kyoko Hasegawa reports that “a rise in defence spending will likely be welcomed in Washington, which has called for Tokyo to shoulder more of the burden of regional security,” but Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, urged “cooler heads to prevail” earlier this week. The United States enjoys an alliance with Japan, and stations around 47,000 troops in the country. This alliance is expected to strengthen in the face of China’s military provocations , since China are largely recognized by the US to be an undemocratic country.

Many Chinese diplomats also fear that their rift with Japan could damage their relationship with the US and their own progress as a growing global power, with the Economist reporting that they have “so much to lose.” China’s and Japan’s respective economies have already been damaged by the rift between businesses in Tokyo and Beijing. The two countries are responsible for some of the largest world economies, and CNBC reports that international businesses already fear that “an escalation may have a spill-over effect on their regional operations and damage trade ties.” In 2011, the US relied upon China for imports worth $399.3 billion, including electrical machinery and power generation equipment. If the USA are forced to take sides in this row, extra tension could be placed upon trade ties and have global repercussions as well as repercussions for the Chinese economy.


But with Japan and China now being led by nationalist powers, the territorial row between China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe might pose an international threat. With the increase in Japan’s defence budget resting amicably under the label of national protection, is it possible that a boost in military spending could have global repercussions?

National protection or international threat?

Whilst Japan’s and China’s nationalist governments are feuding with one another, both countries are beginning to feel the pressure from international allies to thaw relations. Mr Abe launched his first trip abroad since being elected prime minister to Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia on January 16th, in an attempt to tighten Japan’s relationships with democratic allies. It was also widely publicized at the time of the election that Mr Abe proposed a closer allied relationship with the USA, but has yet to visit the White House on an official trip. When he spoke to NHK TV on Sunday, Abe said “Japan’s path since World War II has been to firmly protect democracy and basic human rights and stress the rule of law. I want to emphasise the importance of strengthening ties with countries that share these values.”

Peter Symonds for the World Socialist Online News is particularly cynical about Japan’s militarism and attempts to forge democratic relationships on an international level. He says that “Abe is using ‘democracy’ as a pretext for forcefully pursuing the economic and strategic interests of Japanese imperialism.” He also suggests that the support of the Obama administration for Japan’s military spending proposals may actually increase tensions, by encouraging the divide on an international level. By encouraging Japan, are the US placing themselves against China? The repercussions of what began as a minor feud could escalate to the point of having global consequences.

Anxieties about military confrontation are also surfacing as the Japanese government plan to re-commission the use of nuclear energy in the country. Japan’s strict no-nuclear weapons policy was imposed upon the country by the US after World War II when their Constitution was created, a Constitution which, presently, the Japanese government show no signs of overruling. However, the renewed interest in nuclear energy has led to increasing anxiety about Japan’s uranium and plutonium stockpiles. Despite only two nuclear power stations having been in operation since the Fukushima accident in March 2011, Japan has, according to Japan Times, “amassed a huge stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium: more than 45 tons, or enough for roughly 5,000 nuclear warheads.”

Despite the increase in military expenditure being only marginal to the annual defence budget, concerns about Japan’s political motives are mounting. Many are beginning to question whether what Japan Times calls the “plutonium juggernaut” will be used for military motives rather than environmental reform. The revised military budget currently looks to be purely precautionary, but with the re-emergence of nationalist pro-militarism policies, are Japan’s political decisions beginning to look less like national protection and more like international threat?

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