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Editorial: Diplomacy getting lost in shuffle amid Abe gov't push on defense acquisitions

Looking at the evolving Asia-Pacific security environment, how are Japanese forces to be equipped and at the same time remain consistent with Japan's nonaggressive defense policy? This question requires unremitting public debate.

The fiscal 2018 budget draft sets aside nearly 5.2 trillion yen (about $46 billion) for defense, the fourth record high in a row and the sixth consecutive annual increase since the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew up the fiscal 2013 budget. That the government would shovel so much cash into defense despite Japan's severe fiscal situation is proof positive of how important it is to the prime minister.

Among proposals for new Self-Defense Force (SDF) equipment, the items that really stand out are the Aegis Ashore ground-based anti-missile system, and three types of long-range cruise missiles to be mounted on Air SDF fighter jets.

However, Aegis Ashore had no yen amount attached to it when the Defense Ministry submitted its fiscal 2018 budget appropriation requests this past summer. The cruise missiles were not mentioned at all. The formal decision to acquire these weapons was only made just before the government finalized its budget draft -- a highly irregular practice.

Driving these developments is the quick progress North Korea has made on its missile and nuclear arms programs since this past summer, raising tension on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Japan first began pondering acquiring cruise missiles to defend the country's far-flung island territories from a worryingly assertive China, which has been projecting its power far beyond its local waters. However, Pyongyang's actions have prompted Japan to opt for U.S.-made cruise missiles with the range to strike North Korea.

The cruise missile initiative was apparently directed by the National Security Council, based in the prime minister's office. This indicates that decision-making on the missiles was made at the highest levels of the Abe administration.

Boosting military strength is a global trend. The United States has increased defense spending by about 10 percent, while total defense expenditures among the other NATO nations have risen for three years running. China's defense budget has broken through the 1 trillion yuan (about $152.5 billion, or 17.3 trillion yen) mark.

What worries us is that overdependence on military strength may leave diplomatic efforts in the shadows.

If North Korea succeeds in mounting a nuclear weapon on an ICBM, the confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington will worsen significantly. What should be done before that happens? Military strength by itself is insufficient to resolve the crisis. The U.S. is applying increasing pressure while at the same time searching for a path to dialogue. Asking China to cut off North Korea's oil supply is part of the U.S.'s strategy to get the North to the negotiating table.

Prime Minister Abe has called the North Korean situation a "national crisis," and pledged to "boost (Japan's) defense capability both qualitatively and quantitatively." However, what Abe hasn't mentioned is any sort of diplomacy-based strategy to solve the "crisis."

The Japanese public needs a proper explanation for any increase in armed strength. If the arms race picks up speed, it won't just increase regional tensions, but will also become a major burden on Japan's finances.

It's natural to justify defense spending. However, it is essential to strike a balance between military and diplomatic strategies. We call on the members of the Diet to debate this issue thoroughly in the upcoming regular session.

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