x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Japan looks to China and North Korea for military threats

Tokyo turns from Cold War-era fears of invasion from Russia in the north to safeguarding its south-western areas and improving anti-missile systems.

BEIJING // Japan has outlined a new defence strategy that reconfigures its military to focus on perceived threats from China and North Korea.

Instead of aiming to counter Cold-War era invasion risks from Russia to the north, Tokyo will look to safeguard its south-western areas close to China and improve anti-missile systems to protect itself from North Korea.

Army manpower and equipment are being cut and in their place naval forces will be strengthened, just as China is increasing its maritime capabilities.

Analysts said Japan's new strategy reflected concerns in the region over China's growing power and assertiveness, even though leaders in Beijing have often insisted China is embarked on a "peaceful rise".

Japan's defence priorities for the coming decade were outlined in its National Defence Programme Guidelines, which described China's military build-up as "a concern" and branded North Korea an "urgent, grave factor for instability".

In September, tensions between Japan and China rose significantly over the detention of a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese coastguard vessels near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Concerns over North Korea were brought into focus last month when details of a uranium enrichment facility were revealed and the country shelled a South Korean island, killing four. Yesterday, North Korea warned the South that planned live drills on the same island would be met with even greater force than last month's shelling.

Key changes highlighted in Japan's defence guidelines, approved by the cabinet of the Democratic Party prime minister, Naoto Kan, include increasing the submarine fleet from 16 to 22, modernising fighter jets and expanding the number of combat aircraft on Okinawa island in the far south-west.

The official army headcount will be reduced by about 1,000 to 154,000, while the number of tanks will be cut by about a third to 400.

Advanced missile interception systems on land and on naval vessels will be significantly increased.

As Japan wrestles with heavy public debts, the overall five-year defence budget will be cut by three per cent to 23.49 trillion yen (Dh1.03tn).

The guidelines said China was "rapidly modernising" its military and "expanding activities" in the seas nearby.

"Together with the lack of transparency on China's military and security issues, the trend is a concern for the region and the international community," the document added.

China's official defence spending increased more than 10 per cent every year between 1989 and 2009. The announced total for this year is US$77.9bn (Dh286.11bn), although the Pentagon estimates suggest the figure could be as high as $150bn.

At a press briefing on Thursday, China's ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, insisted "China holds a defence policy that is defensive in nature".

However, China was "starting to change its national defence policy from a defensive position to maybe a more aggressive position", according to Chan Chepo, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

"All this definitely would alarm its neighbouring countries," he said.

The new defence guidelines described Japan's military ties with the United States as "indispensable" and said the country should strengthen defence alliances with South Korea, Australia, South-east Asia and India.

dbardsley@thenational.ae