Japan’s defence minister has called for revision of the guidelines that govern its military co-operation with the US, amid concern in the region over China’s increasingly assertive maritime policies and rapidly growing naval power.
The comments by Satoshi Morimoto, three days after Barack Obama was re-elected as US president, reflect efforts by Tokyo to strengthen the half-century-old alliance, which have been given added impetus by an island sovereignty dispute with China.
Hu Jintao, the country’s outgoing president, on Thursday called for China to become a “maritime power” able to “resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests”.
Beijing has in recent months made increasingly assertive efforts to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that it calls the Diaoyu, with Chinese state vessels now routinely patrolling nearby seas.
Mr Morimoto, a specialist on defence issues who in June became his country’s first non-parliamentarian defence minister, highlighted China’s new naval clout as an important shift in Japan’s security environment since the guidelines for Japan-US defence co-operation were last revised in 1997.
“There are lots of risks that were not really anticipated 15 years ago [including] the issue of China’s maritime emergence,” Mr Morimoto said, citing other newly pressing problems such as terrorism, cyber security and leadership changes in North Korea.
The minister said he hoped to start discussions with Washington on revisions to the guidelines before the end of the year.
A defence ministry official stressed that no goal had been set for how the guidelines should be revised and that the effort was “not directed at any particular nation”.
However, any revision to the guidelines, which lay out how the US military would work with Japan’s self-defence forces in case of a crisis, would be diplomatically highly sensitive.
The 1997 revision outraged China by endorsing Japanese military support for the US in engagements in areas surrounding Japan – raising the possibility of Japanese involvement if China ever sought to use force against its island rival Taiwan.
A Chinese military newspaper denounced the 1997 revision as a “strategic plot to pursue hegemonism” that shifted US-Japan military alliance from “defensive” to “offensive”.
China’s assertive approach to disputes such as that over the Senkakus has fuelled calls in Japan for the officially pacifistic nation to review its defence policies.
Tokyo in 2010 revised its domestic defence policy guidelines to refocus its army and other forces towards securing southeastern islands seen as threatened by a newly potent People’s Liberation Army Navy.
While worries about China have increased Japanese support for the alliance with the US, defence ties with Washington remain vulnerable to friction resulting from the concentration of US forces on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa.
All US troops in Japan were placed under a strict curfew last month after an alleged rape by US sailors of a woman in Okinawa. There is already widespread opposition on the island to a planned relocation of a US Marine air base and anger over the recent deployment of a tilt-rotor aircraft that citizens’ groups say is unsafe.
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