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International relations

Japan defense minister warns of China military intentions in Asia

Taro Kono says preemptive strike capacity is option after Aegis Ashore canceled

TOKYO -- Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono doubled down on the need to keep an eye on China's military capabilities and intentions across Asia, in a rare briefing for foreign media on Thursday.

Explaining his decision two days ago to identify a submarine that ventured near Japanese territorial waters as a Chinese vessel, Kono said, "We need to raise awareness of what's going on around Japan," adding a laundry list of China's recent actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and along its border with India.

"We need to carefully monitor China's intentions, not only their capability," Kono said, noting the gap between China and Japan's defense budgets and fighter jets.

Kono's appearance at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan was the first there by a cabinet member since 2014.

Earlier Thursday, Kono announced that Japan would cancel the purchase of a ballistic missile defense system made by Lockheed Martin.

The decision to cancel the Aegis Ashore program was made last Friday in a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Kono said. The cancellation was approved by the National Security Council on Wednesday in favor of searching for a less costly option, including preemptive strike capabilities.

Acquiring Aegis was already a cheaper alternative to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, which South Korea deployed in 2017. That year, Japan approved the purchase of two Aegis Ashore systems, at a time when North Korea was rapidly escalating its ballistic missile capabilities, and twice launched projectiles over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Installation of the systems was roundly opposed by northern Akita and southwestern Yamaguchi prefectures, as boosters from deployed interceptors could risk hitting residential buildings. Hosting a critical component of Japan's defense shield would also make their prefectures a prime target for potential attacks, locals feared.

"The only reason we had to stop the deployment was because we are not able to control where the boosters might fall," Kono said.

Although the Aegis Ashore program has been put on ice, Kono did not rule out Japan seeking preemptive strike capabilities when its National Security Council meets later this summer. "I don't think we are excluding any option before discussions," he said, while adding, "I don't know if 'preemptive' is the right concept."

"A lot of people use 'preemptive strike' to mean deterrence capability. You need to be careful with using it within the international legal framework," Kono cautioned.

At a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's defense committee Thursday, many lawmakers said Japan should consider the possibility of preemptive strikes.

"Preemptive strikes are not just about equipment," former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters. "We also need intelligence. There's a lot to discuss."

The LDP will kick off a committee to discuss preemptive-strike capabilities in the coming days and submit a proposal to the government by next month.

At the press conference, Kono acknowledged the persistent threat from China and North Korea, not only in the hard power arena but also in cyberspace. The Ministry of Defense last week announced that it would expand its Cyber Defense Unit to 300 people by next spring, as the rushed shift to telework during the coronavirus pandemic exposed Japan's digital vulnerability.

"We're just starting with baby steps right now and it will take some time to catch up with the capability of the United States and China," Kono said. The defense ministry's budget, which has stagnated for the last two decades, would prevent a drastic scaleup of cybersecurity led by the public sector.

"If you look at the budget deficit situation of this country, I don't think anyone's expecting our defense budget to go up drastically in the next couple of years, so prioritization is the key to success," he said.

Kono, however, has embraced an advantage of the digital age. Because copies of the controversial tell-all book by former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton are sold out, Kono settled for downloading an e-book to his Kindle.

Asked about Bolton's claim that President Donald Trump demanded Japan pay $8 billion to be protected by U.S. troops, Kono said, "I haven't finished the book yet, but we haven't started negotiations on host nation support. We haven't heard anything from the United States on those issues."

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