Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet have signed off on the country’s largest defense budget yet. The document will now go before parliament for approval, which is all but guaranteed given the ruling coalition’s supermajority in both houses of the Diet. If approved, it will be implemented for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins April 1.
5.13 trillion yen ($40 billion) out of the total budget of 97.5 trillion yen is allotted for defense. If approved, it will be the fifth consecutive annual increase in Japanese defense spending and an increase of 1.4 percent over 2016, a slightly smaller rate of increase from the year before, when the budget grew by 1.5 percent.
Perhaps most notably, Tokyo plans to allocate 210 billion yen to its Coast Guard — an increase of 20 billion yen. This is important for two reasons. First, compared with just a 1.4 percent increase in the defense spending overall, it points to Tokyo’s struggle to meet the demands of growing regional tension and security competition with China. This pressure has forced Japan’s leaders to make tough decisions on how to allocate resources.
Second, it points to the importance of Coast Guard forces as tools of maritime security and enforcement. In recent years, Beijing has energetically consolidated and expanded its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies (including the Coast Guard), making them into an effective tool for pressing China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. The logic behind China’s embrace of Coast Guard and other civilian maritime forces is simple: Traditionally, countries rely on Coast Guard vessels to interact with other Coast Guard vessels, reserving naval vessels for interactions with other naval vessels. This customary practice of proportionality allows Chinese Coast Guard ships to move about the South China Sea without risking response from other countries’ navies. And because China’s Coast Guard is the region’s largest – indeed, only Japan’s Coast Guard is robust enough to directly counter China’s agencies – it has the advantage in any maritime interactions that do occur.
The Japanese government’s decision to expand Coast Guard spending should be understood in this context. For Tokyo, effectively enforcing its claim of the Senkaku island chain (which China disputes) requires the capacity to respond to Chinese incursions into Japanese-controlled waters. In 2016 alone, Chinese vessels made 35 such incursions in waters near the Senkaku Islands. But even with increased spending, Japan’s Coast Guard forces will struggle to keep up with rising Chinese Coast Guard forays into waters near the Senkakus. This will raise the risk of Japan turning to its Maritime Self-Defense Forces to help police the region, increasing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in the long run.