Photo/Illutration In this June 20 file photo, a U.S. F-35 aircraft sits on the U.K.'s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean Sea. (AP Photo)

Japan’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday asked for a 2.6% increase over this year’s record budget as it seeks to further strengthen the country's military in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

The ministry's budget sought 5.48 trillion yen ($49.86 billion) for the year starting April 1, 2022, in what could be a record high if approved by the Finance Ministry and parliament later this year, after a nine-year consecutive increase.

Japan’s concerns about China’s increasingly assertive military actions in the region, as well as Beijing’s growing tension with Taiwan and rivalry with the United States, were specifically noted in this year’s defense report adopted in July.

The report said China's increased military capability and the lack of clarity regarding Chinese military spending is “a matter of grave concern" and criticized China’s maritime activity in and around Japanese-claimed waters.

Japan has been stepping up defense in the country’s southwestern regions and islands, including Ishigaki Island, where a new military base with a land-to-sea missile defense system will be opened. Ishigaki is north of the uninhabited but Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China and called Diaoyu.

Japan's military spending and capabilities have grown continuously since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, rising by 17% over the past nine years. Abe's government allowed Japan's self-defense force to play a greater international role by adopting a new interpretation in 2015 of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution.

Critics say Japan, as the world’s fastest-aging country with a shrinking population, should allocate more money toward health care and other purposes instead of defense spending.

Costly items in the latest budget request included 130 billion yen ($1.18 billion) to acquire a dozen more U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin, including four F-35Bs capable of short takeoff and vertical landings that can operate on two Japanese helicopter carriers that are being converted.

The Defense Ministry also seeks to increase research and development spending to a record 325.7 billion yen ($2.96 billion) for “game-changing” technologies such as unmanned aircraft operated by artificial intelligence.

The ministry is seeking nearly 105 billion yen ($1 billion) for home-developed fighter jets--the first in about 30 years since the Mitsubishi F-2--by around 2035, a multibillion-dollar project led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

In order to beef up its space forces, Japan wants 84 billion yen ($765 million) that includes purchasing lasers and satellites to track targets in space, as well as increasing space force personnel.