Japan is increasingly concerned about China's assertion of power in the region. Tokyo has unveiled its new defense policy, which is aimed at counterbalancing the Chinese might.
Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces patrolling in international waters
In September, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese patrolling ship near disputed islands south of Japan. The incident led to diplomatic tensions between the two Asian powers.
On Friday, the Japanese government announced its new security policy guidelines. In the face of China’s increasing naval activity close to Japanese maritime borders, the country will strengthen its troop presence on its southwestern islands, including Okinawa.
Active military policy
Nearly half of the 50,000 US forces are based on Japan's southern island of Okinawa
"Japan says that it won’t just follow the United States in terms of sharing the military burden. They now pursue their own independent and active military policy," says Susanne Freke, a Japan expert from Germany's Muenster University.
During the Cold War, Japan’s security concerns were focused on Russia in the north. The rise of China in the region has redefined Japan’s security goals.
Japan’s new defense strategy will shift resources from the army to air force and the navy. The Japanese government plans to spend 280 billion US dollars (210 billion euros) over the next five years on new military hardware: submarines and other naval vessels, combat aircrafts, and missile defense systems.
But Japan’s defense measures are not only a response to China’s rising military spending. "Japan has a very export-oriented economy. They not only need oil imports from the Gulf region, but also other resources. They are highly dependent on the security of their sea routes which are going through the South China Sea," explains Freke, "Now Japan’s concern is that China - with its new military abilities – could use those sea routes to put Japan under political pressure."
Closer strategic cooperation
Japan's Defense Minister Kitazawa shakes hands with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Japan’s Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa also stated that Japan would retain its close ties to the US - its key security ally in the Pacific region. At the same time, Japan will seek to fortify its cooperation with regional partners such as South Korea, Australia and India.
Beijing has reacted by saying that China is no threat to any country. "No country has the right to appoint itself as the representative of the international community and make irresponsible comments on China's development," Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement in response to Japan's announcement.
The North Korea issue
But with its new national defense policy, Japan is also responding to another security concern related to China. Freke says: "So far China has not made its position fully clear regarding North Korea. China hasn’t said that it will put pressure on the regime in North Korea to stop its nuclear ambitions. So, with regard to North Korea, Japan also perceives China as a threat to its national security."
For years, Japan has been pushing the limits of its pacifist constitution. As a lesson from the country's aggression and defeat in the second World War, Japan's armed forces are officially called Self Defense Forces.
The new Japanese defense guidelines highlight the need to build stronger two-way ties between Tokyo and Beijing, while encouraging China to act as a responsible member of the international community.
Author: Chi Viet Giang
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein