TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) - Japan on Tuesday (Dec 18) approved plans to convert two ships into aircraft carriers - the nation's first since World War II - as it tries to counter growing Chinese military power in the region.
The plans are the clearest indication yet of Japan's ambition to become a regional power as a military build-up by China and a resurgent Russia puts pressure on its US ally.
"The United States remains the world's most powerful nation, but national rivalries are surfacing and we recognise the importance of the strategic competition with both China and Russia as they challenge the regional order," said a 10-year defence programme outline approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government on Tuesday.
The United States, followed by China, North Korea and Russia, are the countries that most influenced Japan's latest military thinking, the paper said.
China, the world's second-biggest economy, is deploying more ships and aircraft to patrol waters near Japan, while North Korea has yet to fulfil a pledge to dismantle its nuclear and missile programmes.
Russia, which continues to probe Japanese air defences, said on Monday it had built new barracks for troops on a northern island it captured from Japan at the end of World War II.
The new five-year defence plan calls for the military to upgrade two existing "helicopter carriers" so that they will also be able to launch fighter jets, and is the latest in a series of steps under Abe to boost Japan's military.
But the move is controversial, with critics arguing it moves Tokyo further away from its commitment to strictly defensive capabilities, under Japan's post-World War II Pacifist Constitution.
"We will secure both the quantity and quality of defence capability that is necessary... to meet the rapidly changing security environment," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.
"We believe this is within... what is allowed under the Constitution," Suga said.
The five-year plan approved on Tuesday assumes record defence spending of 27.47 trillion yen (S$332 billion) through March 2024.
It calls for the Defence Ministry to upgrade two flat-top Izumo-class destroyers to enable them to launch fighters with short take-off and vertical landing capacity, like the F35B stealth fighter.
Japan's government also announced on Tuesday that it will over the next decade buy 42 such fighter jets, with the F35B widely considered the likeliest candidate. It also plans to buy 105 units of the F35A, which performs conventional take-off and landings and could not be used on the retrofitted destroyers.
Local media have said the purchases could total more than one trillion yen (US$8.8 billion). The new plans come after pledges from Japan to buy more US military equipment, under pressure from President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly complained about Washington's huge trade deficit with Tokyo. Abe has aggressively expanded Japan's alliance with the United States.
He has campaigned for years to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution, arguing that it ties the hands of the country's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) even in protecting the country from attack. The government also endorsed guidelines for a 10-year defence policy that puts renewed emphasis on cyber security as well as space defence.
The remodelled ships and new fighter jets will "increase operational flexibility" for Japan's military as China boosts its naval footprint in southern waters that are home to several remote Japanese islands, a defence official said.
"We have a very, very small SDF footprint" in the area between Okinawa and Taiwan, he added. But he said it was a "misunderstanding" to believe that the upgrades would create "full-fledged aircraft carriers" capable of staging offensive action in distant regions.
And the new fighter jets would be stationed at existing ground facilities, not on the ships, he said. "We are not creating carrier air wings or carrier air squadrons" like the US navy, he added.
"That's not going to happen."
MORE STEALTH FIGHTERS
Japan plans to buy 45 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealth fighters, worth about US$4 billion (S$5.5 billion), in addition to the 42 jets already on order, according to a separate five-year procurement plan approved on Tuesday.
The new planes will include 18 short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) B variants of the F-35 that planners want to deploy on Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea.
The islands are part of a chain stretching past Taiwan and down to the Philippines that has marked the limit of Chinese military dominance east of the disputed South China Sea.
The navy's two large helicopter carriers, the Izumo and Kaga, will be modified to accommodate F-35B operations, the paper said.
The 248m-long Izumo-class ships are as big as any of Japan's aircraft carriers in World War II.
The ships will need reinforced decks to withstand the heat blast from F-35 engines and could be fitted with ramps to aid short take-offs, two Defence Ministry officials told Reuters.
TRADE WAR THREAT
The new F-35 order may also help Japan avert a trade war with the United States.
US President Donald Trump, who has threatened to impose tariffs on Japanese car imports, thanked Abe for buying the F-35s when the two met at a summit in Argentina this month.
Other US-made equipment on Japan's shopping list includes two land-based Aegis Ashore air defence radars to defend against North Korean missiles, four Boeing Co KC-46 Pegasus refuelling planes to extend the range of Japanese aircraft, and nine Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye early-warning planes.
Japan plans to spend 25.5 trillion yen (S$310 billion)) on military equipment over the next five years, 6.4 per cent higher than the previous five-year plan. Cost-cutting will free up another 2 trillion yen for purchases, the procurement paper said.
Japan only spends about 1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, but the size of its economy means it already has one of the world's largest militaries.
"The budget is increasing and there has been an acceleration to deploy capability as soon as possible," Robert Morrissey, head of Raytheon Co's unit in Japan, said this month.
Wary of North Korean promises to abandon ballistic missile development, Japan's military is buying longer-range Raytheon SM-3 interceptor missiles to strike enemy warheads in space.
The defence papers assessed non-traditional military threats as well. A new joint-forces cyber unit will bolster Japan's defences against cyber attacks. More electronic warfare capabilities are planned.
Japan's air force will also get its first space unit to help keep tabs on potential adversaries high above the Earth's atmosphere.