Japan said yesterday it would buy a US-made missile defense system and conduct a review of its defense capabilities in a move that could unnerve other Asian countries.
Domestic support for the introduction of a missile defense system, mooted since North Korea sent a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, has grown over the past year because of Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda announced the decision to endorse a Defense Agency proposal on missile defense after a meeting of Japan's Security Council.
"There is no intent to harm other countries. This is a completely defensive system," Fukuda told a news conference.
The government planned to complete the defense review and a medium-term defense equipment plan by the end of next year, he said, giving no details on the review, other than to say it would take into account the current security environment.
One topic may be Japan's self-imposed ban on arms exports, which must be modified if Tokyo wants to push ahead with its joint development of a next-generation missile defense system with the US.
Fukuda told reporters on Thursday that the ban was a subject for future discussion.
The first stage of the two-part missile defense system Japan intends to buy consists of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) systems that could be fired at missiles in mid-course from Japan's four existing high-tech AEGIS destroyers.
The second line of defense would be provided by ground-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles, upgrading the PAC-2 system the armed forces already possess.
The Defense Agency estimates the system will cost ?700 billion (US$6.5 billion) over five years, Kyodo news agency said, adding that the government would earmark around ?100 billion for the project in next year's budget.
The system will be partially deployed in 2007 and fully operational by 2011, the daily Mainichi Shimbun said yesterday. The Defense Agency said it could not confirm the dates.
Moves towards a more independent defense posture tend to spark nervous reactions from Japan's Asian neighbors, some of which suffered under Tokyo's colonial rule before and during World War II.
Japan's launch of two spy satellites in March this year to keep an eye on North Korea, drew complaints from Pyongyang that it would set off a regional arms race.
Japan's close cooperation with the US over missile defense may also put pressure on its sometimes tense relations with China.
"The Chinese have a number of concerns over the US efforts to develop a missile defense system," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.
"One is that it threatens to negate the Chinese nuclear deterrent force. Another is that it has potential application over the conflict in Taiwan," he added.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba visited China earlier this year in an attempt to reassure Beijing that the missile program would be purely defensive.
He denied yesterday that the system risked infringing Japan's ban on "collective self-defense," part of the Constitution that prohibits it even from helping allies if they come under attack.