Japan will boost its military spending in coming years, buying early-warning planes, beach-assault vehicles and troop-carrying aircraft, while seeking closer ties with Asian partners to counter a more militarily assertive China.
The planned 2.6 percent increase over five years, announced on Tuesday, reverses a decade of decline and marks the clearest sign since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office a year ago that he wants a bigger military role for Japan as tension flares with China over islands they both claim.
Abe's avowed top priority has been reviving a long-sluggish economy, but he has also pledged to strengthen Japan's military and boost its security profile to meet what he says is a threat from China's rapid military buildup and recent actions to back its claims to Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea.
"China is attempting to change the status quo by force in the skies and seas of the East China Sea and South China Sea and other areas, based on its own assertions, which are incompatible with the established international order," Japan said in its first national security strategy, one of three plans approved on Tuesday.
"China's stance toward other countries and military moves, coupled with a lack of transparency regarding its military and national security policies, represent a concern to Japan and the wider international community and require close watch."
Meanwhile, in Manila, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the diplomatic row in the region Tuesday by downplaying fears of worsening relations.
Kerry said the U.S. would speak out when countries "raised the temperature" through unilateral actions in territorial disputes, but added that the U.S. does not believe tension is rising in the East China Sea.
"We are not approaching this with any particular view towards China, except to say when China makes a unilateral move we will state our position," Kerry told a news conference with Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario.
In his remarks in Manila, Kerry announced $40 million in new aid to the Philippines security forces, in part to help the country protect its territorial waters amid disputes in the South China Sea.
He urged all the nations involved to "lower the intensity" of the diplomatic dispute.
Abe's government also vows to review Japan's ban on weapons exports, a move that could reinvigorate struggling defense contractors like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.
The policies, including a five-year military buildup and a 10-year defense guideline, call for stronger air and maritime surveillance capabilities and improved ability to defend far-flung islands through such steps as setting up a marine unit, buying unarmed surveillance drones and putting a unit of E-2C early-warning aircraft on Okinawa island in the south.
China and Japan have been embroiled in an increasingly strident row over tiny islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu.
Tension spiked in late November when Beijing announced an air-defense zone over a wide area including the islands, prompting protests from Tokyo, Washington and Seoul and raising fears that a minor incident in the disputed sea could quickly escalate.
Relations between Japan and China have been overshadowed for years by what China says has been Japan's refusal to admit to atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in China between 1931 and 1945.
China's Xinhua news agency said they were clearly aimed at China and it warned Japan against "big-power geopolitics."
"If Japan really hopes to return itself to the ranks of a 'normal country,' it should face up to its aggression in history and cooperate with its Asian neighbors instead of angering them with rounds and rounds of unwise words and policies," state-run Xinhua said.
Past Japanese governments have stretched the limits of a post-World War II constitution, written during the U.S. occupation of a defeated Japan, that renounces war and says Japan will never have an army or navy.
Abe wants to go further, including lifting a ban on fighting overseas or aiding an ally under attack.