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International relations

Japan expanding missile defense with eye on China, Russia

Tokyo sees Aegis Ashore defending against both ballistic and cruise missiles

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, center, speaks with reporters after visiting a test facility for the Aegis Ashore.   © Kyodo

KAUAI, U.S. -- As Japan looks to bolster missile defenses with the Aegis Ashore surface-to-air system, citing North Korean threats, the growing attack capabilities of China and Russia appears to be driving Tokyo's decision as well.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera suggested Wednesday that Japan could use Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the Aegis missile defense system used on ships, against a greater range of targets, such as incoming cruise missiles. Aegis Ashore, developed by the U.S., is designed primarily to shoot down ballistic missiles outside Earth's atmosphere. Onodera made the comment while visiting a test site on this Hawaiian island.

Onodera's remarks reflect concern over the growing missile capabilities shown by Russia and China. Russian air-to-surface missiles have a range of 4,500km, while China's can reach 1,500km, the Japanese Defense Ministry says. These ranges would let the countries target Japan from their own territories. Tokyo's strictly defensive security policy -- meaning it cannot attack enemy bases -- makes it crucial that Japan be able to shoot down long-range missiles with certainty.

In fiscal 2018, Japan will test the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-6 interceptor. These missiles can be used on targets ranging from cruise missiles to aircraft.

"It won't be difficult to load them onto the Aegis Ashore system," a Defense Ministry official said. They also could be used on Aegis-equipped vessels with some updates.

The Aegis Ashore deployment also fits with American strategy on Russia. The U.S. military began operating its first battery in Romania in May 2016, and plans to install one in Poland by the end of this year. Both are intended as a deterrent against Russian nuclear missiles, a Japanese defense official said. Having the system in Japan would help curb Russia to its east as well.

The U.S. remains especially concerned about Russia's nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has deployed over 40 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California and has monitored for any missile launches through satellites.

Russia adamantly opposes Japan's deployment of Aegis Ashore. Its foreign ministry said the decision deals a heavy blow to efforts for a formal peace treaty between the two nations and greater bilateral ties.

"Russia is concerned that its nuclear capability, which is its greatest strength, will be nullified," a Japanese official said.

Tokyo claims Aegis Ashore is meant as a reaction to North Korea, but Moscow is unconvinced. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, expressed concern that the U.S. will be involved in the system's operation when he met Onodera in Japan last month.

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