Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday said Japan will be a "proactive contributor to peace" in an interconnected global security environment, while rejecting the notion he is a "right-wing militarist."
As Japan aims to review its defense posture to lift its self-imposed ban on collective-self defense, Abe, speaking at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said the country's increase in defense spending has not been as big as that of "an immediate neighbor," an apparent reference to China.
"The country has increased its military expenditures, hardly transparent, by more than 10 percent annually for more than 20 years since 1989. And then my government has increased its defense budget only by 0.8 percent," the prime minister said.
"So call me, if you want, a right-wing militarist," Abe said.
The prime minister said his first priority is to revive the domestic economy, which has been reeling from decades of deflation. His "Abenomics" economic policy package, which helped lift share prices and weaken the yen, is designed to change "the inward-looking mindset" of Japanese people so they become bolder in risk-taking.
Still, Abe, on a visit to the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly, explained what lies ahead for Japan in addressing security challenges, one of the prime minister's priority areas, as Tokyo aims to take on a greater security role.
"Japan should not be the weak link in the regional and global security framework where the United States plays a leading role," Abe said as he expressed his resolve to make Japan a "proactive contributor to peace."
Recent security concerns for Japan have come from China's maritime assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear ambitions, prompting Tokyo to describe the security environment as having become more severe.
Japan's purchase last September of a major portion of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from a Japanese private owner raised the hackles of Beijing. Even as Abe has said "the door is always open for dialogue," roughly nine months have passed without summit talks between Japan and China since he took office.
The prime minister described the limitations imposed by the current interpretation of the pacifist Constitution, namely a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense with two examples.
In one scenario, Japan's Self-Defense Forces could not help foreign troops in a U.N. peacekeeping operation, even if they were under attack, while in the other, if U.S. warships operating around Japan were attacked in international waters by an airplane, the SDF could not come to the rescue.
"Is Japan up to its task in this world where threats see no borders?" Abe said.
A government panel reinstated by Abe is scheduled to compile and submit its report by year-end on whether Japan should be allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Abe has said, however, he does not have a specific time frame for making a final decision.
Abe still faces a hurdle to clear at home as the New Komeito party, the coalition partner of his Liberal Democratic Party, remains cautious about changing the interpretation of the Constitution.