Tokyo to boost maritime defence

PM Noda also urges neighbouring countries to establish ties of trust

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has warned China and South Korea that his government intends to strengthen Japan's defences in its surrounding seas, indicating it will not back down in its territorial disputes with both countries.

"There is no doubt that the security environment surrounding Japan has become more serious than ever. Incidents concerning territorial and sovereign rights have taken place," Mr Noda said in a major policy speech to the Lower House at the opening of another session of Parliament.

"With unwavering resolve, the country will discharge its natural obligation to protect its territories and territorial seas according to international law," he stressed yesterday.

His government would also "continue to speak out in international society and to strengthen the defence of our surrounding seas".

His remarks came just hours after Chinese vessels were once again spotted in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, in an apparent demonstration of Beijing's own claim to the islands, known as Diaoyu in China.

Japan is also involved in a row with South Korea over the Takeshima Islands, or Dokdo to the South Koreans, and with Russia over the southern Kurile Islands.

In his speech yesterday, however, Mr Noda omitted mention of the parties to the disputes and the names of the disputed territories, to avoid further harming already-strained bilateral ties.

Just last Friday, Japan announced it would spend 17 billion yen (S$260 million) to strengthen its coast guard, its resources currently stretched to the limit in the continuing territorial confrontation with China.

The money will be used to buy four state-of-the-art patrol vessels and other equipment.

The patrol vessels are expected to be deployed by March 2015, one year earlier than originally scheduled, due to growing concern over the threat from China.

At the same time, Mr Noda also urged neighbouring countries - mentioning China, South Korea and Russia by name - to establish stable ties of trust, which he called the "basis" for the peace and prosperity of the region.

During his speech, he also rapped the opposition for trying to politicise issues in order to rock his administration.

"We must not randomly create a political vacuum and bring politics to a standstill," Mr Noda warned.

Opposition parties want him to call early general elections - before the end of the year - even though the polls need not be held until next July.

The opposition is contemplating passing a non-binding censure motion against Mr Noda in the opposition-controlled Upper House to put pressure on him.

Opinion polls suggest that his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is likely to lose if an election is held soon, as it trails far behind the opposition Liberal Democratic Party in popularity ratings.

But Mr Noda hinted yesterday that he wanted to hang on for as long as he can.

"I cannot possibly abandon something that I have embarked upon," he said, referring to economic reconstruction, which he declared to be his next top priority.

He had earlier this year pushed through a sales tax hike to clean up Japan's national debt.

The coming weeks are expected to be tough for Mr Noda.

Yesterday, another two DPJ lawmakers quit the party, reducing the DPJ-led ruling coalition's majority in the Lower House to just six votes.

If the ruling coalition loses its parliamentary majority as a result of more defections, it will likely precipitate early polls.