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A Japanese helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck of the Izumo. Photo: AP

Japan indicates China is bigger threat than North Korea in latest defence review

  • For the first time, Japan’s Defence White Paper had a section on China right after the US, pushing North Korea into third position. Russia was fourth.
  • China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative was identified as an emerging strategic threat, with suggestions China could use this to push its army into the Indian and Pacific Oceans
China’s growing military might has replaced North Korean belligerence as the main security threat to Japan, Tokyo’s annual defence review indicated on Thursday, despite signs that Pyongyang could have nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
The document’s security assessment on China comes after a section on Japan’s ally, the US, the first time Beijing has achieved second place in the Defence White Paper and pushing North Korea into third position.

Russia, deemed by Japan as its primary threat during the cold war, was in fourth place.

“It is a reflection of the fact that only United States and China can project their influence globally,” a Ministry of Defence official told a news briefing.

The report also identified Beijing’s belt and road infrastructure investments in other countries as an emerging strategic threat. The paper suggested China could use this initiative to push its People’s Liberation Army into the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, threatening regional security.

“China engages in unilateral, coercive attempts to alter the status quo based on its own assertions that are incompatible with the existing international order,” the paper said.

“It is possible that the construction of infrastructure based on the initiative will further promote the activities of the PLA in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and elsewhere.”

China’s Foreign Ministry expressed displeasure with the report.

China will not accept Japan’s “groundless criticism” of its normal national defence and military activities, spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press briefing in Beijing.

Since 2013 more than 130 countries have signed deals or expressed interest in belt and road projects geared to spurring trade along routes reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road. The World Bank estimates some US$575 billion worth of railways, roads, ports and other projects have been or are in the process of being built. Critics contend projects can be debt traps that leave host countries with white elephant infrastructure and bills they cannot repay.

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Japan has raised defence spending by one-tenth over the past seven years to counter military advances by Beijing and Pyongyang, including defences against North Korean missiles which may carry nuclear warheads, the paper said.

To stay ahead of China’s modernising military, Japan is buying US-made stealth fighters and other advanced weapons.

In its latest budget request, Japan’s military asked for 115.6 billion yen (US$1.1 billion) to buy nine Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters, including six short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variants to operate from converted helicopter carriers.

Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono. Photo: Reuters

The stealth jets, US-made interceptor missiles and other equipment are part of a proposed 1.2 per cent rise in defence spending to a record 5.32 trillion yen in the year starting April 1.

By comparison, Chinese military spending is set to rise this year by 7.5 per cent to about US$177 billion from 2018, more than three times that of Japan. Beijing is developing weapons such as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers that are helping it expand the range and scope of military operations.

Once largely confined to operating close to the Chinese coast, Beijing now routinely sends its air and sea patrols near Japan’s western Okinawa islands and into the Western Pacific.

China has frequently rebuffed concerns about its military spending and intentions, including a ramped up presence in the disputed South China Sea, and says it only desires peaceful development.

The Defence White Paper said Chinese patrols in waters and skies near Japanese territory are “a national security concern”.

The paper downgraded fellow US ally, South Korea, which recently pulled out of an intelligence sharing pact with Japan amid a spat over their shared wartime history. The move could weaken efforts to contain North Korean threats, analysts said.

Other partners, including Australia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and India, feature more prominently in the defence paper.

South Korean government officials took issue with the White Paper’s reference to ownership of an island in the Sea of Japan that is also claimed and controlled by South Korea. The outcrop is known as Dokdo in Seoul and Takeshima in Tokyo.

“Our government strongly protests Japan’s repeated claim. The Japanese government should acknowledge that it is not helpful for bilateral relations,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China bigger military threat than N Korea, Japan says