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Japan's safety fears grow as neighbors build arms

Feng Li, Getty Images News, Getty Images

Japan finds itself surrounded by a worsening security environment as North Korea pushes forward with missile development and China and Russia step up military activity in the region, Japan's Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.

The ministry's annual white paper comes after intermittent testing by North Korea of ballistic missiles in defiance of a U.N. ban, and a record number of scrambles by Japanese fighter jets in April-June due to increased flights by Chinese and Russian planes close to Japan's air space.

"With a trend toward arms buildup and modernization, and brisker military activity by neighboring countries getting prominent, security challenges and destabilizing factors for Japan and the rest of the Asia-Pacific are becoming more serious," the ministry said in the paper.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012 intent on easing the limits of the post-war pacifist constitution on the military to let Japan play a bigger global security role.

Abe's government this year took some historic steps away from Japan's post-war pacifism by easing weapons export restrictions and ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad.

The moves have been viewed warily elsewhere in Asia, in particular in China. Ties between China and Japan were already strained by a territorial dispute over a group of tiny East China Sea isles as well as rows over the legacy of Japan's wartime aggression. Patrol ships from both countries routinely shadow each other near the islands, stoking fear of clashes.

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Recently, however, Abe has renewed a call for a bilateral summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two governments are trying to arrange a summit on the sidelines of a Pacific Rim conference in Beijing in November, the Nikkei newspaper said on Monday.

The ministry's report described China's action in maritime disputes with other countries as "high-handed" and called on China to observe international norms.

China in November launched an air defense identification zone covering a swathe of the East China Sea, including the disputed isles, and warned it would take "defensive emergency measures" against aircraft that failed to identify themselves.

"These are very dangerous measures that could lead to the unilateral change of the status quo in the East China Sea, escalation of the situation, and some unexpected development," the ministry said. "We are deeply concerned."

China's defense budget soared fourfold over the past decade to 808 billion yuan ($131 billion), while Japan's defense spending dipped by 1.9 percent over the same period to 4.78 trillion yen ($47 billion), the ministry said.

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Japan and the United States are set to revise cooperation guidelines by the end of the year to reflect the changing security environment and better respond to threats in such areas as space and cyber space.

'Global issue'

The Defense Ministry called North Korea's missile and nuclear programs a "grave destabilizing factor" and warned that progress in the projects could embolden the North to resort to more provocation.

"If North Korea extends the range of ballistic missiles further, reduces the size of nuclear arms and turns them into warheads, the country could come to believe it has secured strategic deterrence against the United States."

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There is a possibility that the advanced version of North Korea's Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles, when fitted with a warhead weighing less than one tonne, could have a range of more than 10,000 km (6,200 miles), covering part of the continental United States, the ministry said.

Japan is also keeping a wary eye on Russia's involvement in turmoil in Ukraine, where Moscow in March annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

"This change to the status quo by Russia, with force in the background, is a global issue that affects the entire international society," it said.

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Any attempt to change the status quo by force makes Japan nervous as China challenges Japan's control over the East China Sea islets, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The ministry also touched upon another set of small islands, controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan, saying they were Japan's inherent territory.

Similar comments in the past have prompted South Korea to lodge a stern protest. The islets are called the Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.

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