Japan shifts defence focus to China, North Korea

Japan said it would shift its defence focus from the Soviet Cold War threat.

Tokyo: Japan said on Friday it would shift its defence focus from the Soviet Cold War threat to southern islands nearer China, labelling the military build-up of its giant neighbour a global "concern".

Aside from boosting its southern forces and submarine fleet and upgrading its fighter-jets, Japan will strengthen missile defences against the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea, it said in a major strategic review.

The cabinet of officially pacifist Japan approved the National Defence Programme Guidelines months after a territorial row flared up with China and weeks after North Korea launched a deadly artillery strike against South Korea.

The new guidelines labelled North Korea -- which in recent years has fired missiles over Japan, staged two nuclear tests and last month unveiled a new uranium enrichment plant -- an "urgent, grave factor for instability".

Japan, like its ally the United States, also again voiced concern over China`s recent military build-up and increased assertiveness in what it sees as its ancestral waters in the East China and South China seas.

"China is rapidly modernising its military force and expanding activities in its neighbouring waters," said the guidelines approved by Prime Minister Naoto Kan`s cabinet on Friday.

"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," said the paper, which sets out strategic planning for the coming decade.

Japan will increase its submarine fleet from 16 to 22 and modernise its fighter jets, but scrap more than 200 tanks and 200 artillery pieces, using the savings to pay for boosting its far-southern island defences, it said.

It also plans to double from three to six the number of land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor missile systems, and increase from four to six the number of sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors on its Aegis destroyers.

Pledging a more nimble defence capability, it said: "We will build a dynamic defence force backed by sophisticated technologies and intelligence, with readiness, mobility, flexibility, sustainability and multiple disciplines."

The plan moves away from an emphasis on the perceived Cold War threat of a Soviet invasion and calls for drawing down troop strength on far-northern Hokkaido island, while also cutting 200 tanks and 200 artillery pieces in total.

Instead it recommends boosting ground, air and naval forces on the far-southern Nansei islands that take in Okinawa, a major base for US forces, and are closer to remote flashpoint islands near Taiwan.

"Reducing Cold-War type equipment and forces, we will concentrate on areas such as maritime surveillance and missile defence in areas including the Nansei islands," the guidelines said.

Japan`s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are an all-volunteer military which is constitutionally barred from offensive action.

Under the post-WWII Constitution, Japan should "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”, but it now has a larger Army than Britain or France and, defence experts say, the most advanced defence forces in Asia.

Japan`s defence budget has long been unofficially pegged at about one percent of gross domestic product, or nearly USD 50 billion -- putting it in the global top seven nations, experts say.

Bureau Report

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