To address concerns about Chinese ambitions in northeast Asia, Japan is moving to bolster its missile defences. It is currently testing the XASM-3 supersonic anti-ship missile, which could enter service next year.
Photo: Hunini/Wikimedia Commons.
To address concerns about Chinese ambitions in northeast Asia, Japan is moving to bolster its missile defences. It is currently testing the XASM-3 supersonic anti-ship missile, which could enter service next year. Photo: Hunini/Wikimedia Commons.

North Korea’s new launch of a long-range missile has again brought Japan’s attention back to the short-term nuclear and ballistic challenge from its belligerent neighbor. But Tokyo’s long-term focus remains the containment of China’s military ambitions in northeast Asia.

Last week, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera confirmed that his country and Britain were moving forward with their joint research on the viability of a middle-range air-to-air missile. Tokyo also plans to develop a new anti-ship projectile and perhaps a land-attack rocket.

While Japan is traditionally dependent on the military umbrella provided by the United States and relies on the acquisition of US-made weapons, it is stepping up its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the East China Sea.

Shutaro Sano, a scholar at the National Defence Academy of Japan, told Asia Times that Tokyo was committed to developing its air and sea denial platforms, although it has never referred to them as “A2/AD” defences. He added that Japanese leaders had never officially viewed China’s military rise as a “threat,” but as a “concern.” According to him, this is clear from the fact that “Beijing is too important for Tokyo,” as indicated in the Japanese government’s 2013 National Security Strategy.

New missile would be a Japanese/British venture

Japan is putting great emphasis on missile advancement. It is trying to develop an air-to-air projectile combining British missile propulsion know-how and Japanese seeker technology. In essence, the prospective weapon will be an improved Meteor missile equipped with a radar system produced by Mitsubishi Electric — Meteor is manufactured by European defense contractor MBDA.

The new air-to-air missile should be fitted on the advanced F-35 stealth fighter and used to protect Japan’s territories in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing as Diayou.

A prototype of this airborne missile would be ready next year, Onodera said. Then, its performance will be examined for possible future production.

More important, Japan is considering building up new anti-ship cruise missiles. In its budget request for fiscal year 2018, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) highlights the need to improve the country’s ability to respond to attacks on its “remote islands.” The MoD has required US$77 million to conduct research on a new anti-ship missile for this specific goal.

Triple-threat weapon with a 300-km range

Japan is working on a projectile with a range of more than 300 kilometers that can be launched from land, sea, and air. It is said that it will have stealth capabilities and will be able to change direction in flight. Tokyo has already developed anti-ship systems. Notably, it is currently testing the XASM-3 supersonic anti-ship missile, which is designed to be mounted on the F-2 multirole fighter jet and could enter service next year.

As well, media reports say Japan is ready to realize a land-attack projectile. Its development is said to be linked to the new anti-ship missile program and based on US Tomahawk technology. It should be able to strike enemy ground forces occupying outlying territories like the Senkakus, as well as military installations in North Korea.

However, Onodera said his ministry was giving priority to anti-ship equipment. He pointed out that anti-ship missiles designed to defend Japan’s remote islands were not intended for counterattack operations. This is a delicate issue, as the country’s use of military force is subject to constitutional limitations.

Nervous neighbors South Korea and Taiwan

Japan is the strongest ally of the United States in northeast Asia, where the two powers form a combined military force, and its rearmament is a matter of concern for China (and Russia). But missile development may also put the Japanese government at odds with neighboring South Korea and Taiwan. Allied with Washington, these two countries are sensitive to any military reinforcement of Tokyo, their old colonial master.

Japan’s aim is to increase air and sea denial capabilities around its southern islands (the Nansei Shoto chain), near the Senkakus. For this purpose, it plans to station there anti-ship and surface-to-air missile launchers. But this is only an element of Japan’s military build-up in the region. The third-largest world economy is also committed to ramping up maritime strength and anti-missile capacities, setting up new ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) facilities, and establishing amphibious rapid-deployment brigades.

While Washington’s primary strategic interest is to lock China in the first island chain and prevent it from projecting power beyond the East China Sea, Japan must first protect its territories and interests in this body of water. And it is likely that it is drawing on the Chinese A2/AD playbook to deny Beijing sea and air control in the area.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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