Eyeing China, Japan's defense ministry seeks record budget to defend southern islands

Japan's Defense Ministry on Friday requested money for F-35 stealth fighter jets as part of its biggest-ever budget to bolster its ability to defend remote southern islands, including ones also claimed by an increasingly assertive China.

Plans to buy P-1 surveillance aircraft and "Global Hawk" drones, as well as an Aegis radar-equipped destroyer, are also part of the 5 trillion yen ($48 billion) budget for the year beginning in April 2015, a 3.5 percent increase from the current year.

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The budget reflects a new defense strategy and guidelines released in December as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes to give the military a greater role. Tensions with China have risen over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.

To allow Japan a more assertive military posture, Abe's Cabinet in July approved a reinterpretation of the country's U.S.-drafted war-renouncing constitution so that the country can defend American and other foreign troops under attack. The step has split public opinion because of continuing sensitivity over Japan's militaristic past.

Twenty P-1 aircraft would cost 380 billion yen ($3.6 billion) and a new destroyer 162 billion yen ($1.6 billion). Six F-35s have a price tag of about 96 billion yen ($930 million). The ministry is also requesting 41 billion yen ($400 million) for research and development of next-generation fighter jets that would replace F-2 jets that will eventually retire.

To upgrade troop mobility, Japan also plans to deploy Osprey tilt-rotor helicopters and amphibious vehicles.

The ministry said it is also forming a defense equipment agency that will centralize the development, procurement and export of military equipment and technology. In April, Japan eased its self-imposed ban on arms exports.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a budgetary meeting at the ministry that the increased spending is "to strengthen our response to attacks on islands" as well as surveillance in the sea and air around Japan. "We incorporated all costs that are necessary to ensure Japan's security," he said.

Under Japan's new defense guidelines, the ministry is launching a new amphibious unit similar to the U.S. Marines in southern Japan, and a coastal unit on the southernmost island of Yonaguni to watch over the disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Chinese coast guard ships and military jets have increased their activities in the area.