TOKYO - Russia has blasted a decision by Japan to deploy a new US-made land-based missile system, prompting Japanese defence chief Itsunori Onodera to reassure Moscow on Tuesday (Jan 16) that the new Aegis Ashore system would "purely be for defensive purposes".
Last month, Japan confirmed its purchase of two Aegis Ashore batteries comprising computers, radars and missiles from the US, to boost its defences against incoming ballistic missiles amid fears about North Korea. Rollout is slated for 2023 at the earliest.
"The Aegis Ashore will be operated independently by Japan, and will not pose any threat to surrounding countries including Russia," Mr Onodera said on Tuesday.
The Japanese defence chief was speaking a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the move by Tokyo would inevitably mar Russo-Japan ties.
"We do not know of a single example around the globe in which the US has deployed its weapons only to place the controls in the hands of the host country."
"We have serious doubts this will really be so," Mr Lavrov said in Moscow. He called for "more convincing proof".
This is not the first time that the deployment of a US-made weapon in North-east Asia has complicated political ties. China last year hit out at South Korea with a series of stinging economic measures following Seoul's decision to install the US-operated missile shield known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad).
The row between Tokyo and Moscow comes as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone against the grain of his Group of Seven (G-7) counterparts with a series of overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Abe's goal was to break a bilateral impasse over a set of four contested islands just north of Hokkaido, known to Japan as the Northern Territories and to Russia as the Southern Kuril islands. The islands, now administered by Russia and claimed by Japan, were seized by Russian troops in 1945 at the end of World War II. There is still no peace treaty between the two nations.
Dr James Brown, an expert on Russian issues at Temple University Japan, told The Straits Times that Moscow's concerns "cannot be dismissed as paranoia" given its view that the US views it as an adversary.
"Russia feels that the US is trying to surround it with anti-missile defence systems that undermine its strategic deterrent," he said, adding that Moscow also sees the US as using the North Korean threat as a "convenient excuse to escalate deployment of such systems in East Asia".
And despite Japan's attempts to reach a detente with Moscow , Dr Brown said Russia "cannot ignore the fact that Japan remains a close US ally".
This has led to concerns that any ceding of control of the four disputed islands to Tokyo will result in US military installations being built on the islands.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported on Tuesday that Mr Putin "appears to be stepping up his resolve to claim ownership of the islands" ahead of a presidential election in March which he is widely expected to win.
The NHK pointed to a meeting on Monday between Mr Putin and Mr Mikhail Oseevskiy, the president of Russian state-owned telecom firm Rostelecom. They discussed plans to lay Internet cables between the Russian mainland and the disputed islands, with work due to start as early as May.
Yet Russia is also in talks with Japan over potential joint economic activities on the islands in five areas, including tourism and fish farming, though questions remain over how this can be done without affecting the legal claims by either side over the islands.
Mr Abe hopes to iron out an agreement with Mr Putin during bilateral talks slated for May this year, though Dr Brown said the current disagreement over the US-made missile system might throw a spanner in Tokyo's plans.
"The Russian side takes missile defence extremely seriously and has been warning Tokyo that the decision to deploy Aegis Ashore risks upsetting the strategic balance," he noted.