Japan's Cabinet approved a record-high military spending plan Wednesday, endorsing the purchase of pricey U.S. surveillance drones and F-35 fighter jets as Tokyo steps up cooperation with Washington amid China's increasingly assertive activity in regional seas.
The 5.1 trillion yen ($42.1 billion) proposal is part of an 96.7 trillion yen national budget plan for the year beginning April 2016, also an all-time high. The entire package requires parliamentary approval.
Military spending would rise 1.5 percent from this year, the fourth annual increase under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who ended a decade of defense budget cuts.
Under Abe's leadership, the ruling bloc in September pushed through parliament hotly contested legislation that allows Japan's military to fight overseas, for the first time since its defeat in World War Two, in defense of a friendly country under attack. Passage was a milestone for Abe, who is intent on reducing limits on the military placed by pacifist Article Nine of the U.S-drafted, post-war constitution.
The new security law divided Japan's public opinion, with opponents saying it would increase a possibility of Japan being embroiled in U.S.-led war.
Japan is beefing up surveillance and defense of its southern islands, where it has a territorial dispute with China. The budget plan also includes the purchase of an advanced Aegis radar-equipped destroyer with missile-defense capability, submarine construction and sonar development.
The Defense Ministry plans to spend 14.8 billion yen this year on some of the multibillion-dollar, multi-year purchase of three "Global Hawk" unmanned drones, as well as six F-35 fighter jets for 138 billion yen and a Boeing mid-air refueling aircraft KC-46A at 23 billion yen.
"We believe the budget includes items that would contribute to enhancing Japan-U.S. cooperation in the area of ISR (information, surveillance and reconnaissance)," Defense Ministry official Tomoki Matsuo said.
Japan also pays 193 billion yen for about 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan under the bilateral security treaty, more than half of them on Okinawa — a major source of friction between the central government and the southern island frustrated with the decades-long burden.
The cost to move some of them to Guam and a contentious plan to move the U.S. Marine air base from the crowded Futenma area to a less-populated location on Okinawa was also added to the budget.
Japan is constructing a Soryu-class submarine, among the world's largest submarines, and developing a new sonar system. Tokyo is competing against Germany and France to jointly develop Australia's next generation submarine fleet.
In a bid to step up its island defense, Japan is also purchasing a fleet of 17 SH-60K home-made helicopters and 36 maneuver combat tanks as well as amphibious vehicles.