The anchor of U.S. policy in Asia since the end of World War II has been to prevent the re-militarization of Japan. Since the end of the Cold War and the rise of China this policy has been increasingly called into question as a more powerful Japan could serve as a useful counterbalance to China and a means for the U.S. to more effectively share the burdens of regional security in Asia. Still, any moves by Japan to bolster its military power tend to make people nervous.
So it's not surprising that a recent decision by the newly installed government of Shinzo Abe to request more funds for defense after over a decade of cuts has raised eyebrows.
CFR's Scott Snyder, however, argues that it's not a sign of rising militarism:
There is a serious debate among policymakers as to whether this is actually sufficient to deal with the growing challenges Japan could face in the years ahead. Prime Minister Abe’s new government is widely seen as more hawkish, and thus the interpretation of this budget’s meaning differs widely. Martin Fackler’s NYT piece early in the week sees this as the new prime minister’s effort “to bolster Japan’s declining influence,” while a WSJ article views this week’s announcements in Tokyo as “paltry” and instead admonishes Japan’s new prime minister “to get serious about defense, and fast.” Expect this conversation to continue as the specifics of Japan’s defense policy develop.The U.S. needs just enough Japanese rearmament to deter China and keep the U.S. tab as low as possible without stoking a confrontation. On the plus side, fears of Japanese "free-riding" may be overblown (although the $1.3 billion increase is pretty small beer as far as these things go). As Snyder notes, we won't know the full contours of Japan's defense policy and any substantive changes Abe plans to make until the government releases its National Defense Program Guidelines document, which is due at the end of 2013.