The government is upbeat following the successful interception of a target in space by a U.S.-made ballistic missile, saying the result will pave the way to completing a nearly ¥1 trillion project to build a missile shield for Japan.
But experts warn the development of the high-tech missile system will lead to a closer military alliance with the United States, a politically sensitive issue in Japan, and could affect the balance of power in East Asia, where China is boosting defense spending and Russia is updating its military.
On Monday off Hawaii, the Aegis-equipped destroyer Kongou knocked out a target missile with a U.S.-made Standard Missile-3 interceptor over the Pacific Ocean.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba lauded the successful test, describing it as significant and as helping to raise the credibility of the country’s missile interception system.
The Cabinet formally decided in 2003 to try to build a missile shield jointly with the United States following four years of research after North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile in 1998. Part of the missile flew over Japanese territory before falling into the Pacific, shocking the public.
The Defense Ministry is planning to equip three more Aegis ships with SM-3s by fiscal 2010.
One of the future tasks of the Self-Defense Forces will be jointly creating a radar and communications network to share information with the U.S. to ensure the missile shield is effective, Defense Ministry officials said.
Japan and the U.S. agreed in 2005 to jointly set up a missile defense operation center at the U.S. Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo.
But experts and opposition lawmakers warn the project will inevitably lead to more Japanese reliance on the United States as the U.S. military leads the SDF in development of the missile system.
They argue that closer cooperation with the United States could force Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, which the government says is not allowed under the Constitution.
“The SM-3 test will encourage more and more joint work between the SDF and the U.S. military, not only on the missile shield but overall operations involving the air, maritime and ground forces,” military analyst Osamu Inagaki said.
Toshinori Tanaka, head of the Defense Ministry’s Ballistic Missile Defense Office, is dismissive of such concerns.
“It is a wild argument that efforts to share information with the United States would lead Japan to the use of arms in joint missions with the United States,” he said.
Toshiki Kaji, a researcher on security issues, said Monday’s test will encourage China and Russia to try to enhance their missile capabilities.
“Japan’s success will have an impact on the nuclear potential of China and Russia in East Asia. There is no doubt that the two countries will step up their efforts to develop missiles with a higher performance,” Kaji said.
Inagaki said China is unlikely to react immediately, but “it could do so depending on where Aegis destroyers with SM-3 missiles are deployed, especially with regard to whether they sail only in the Sea of Japan, or in other waters, too.”
Immediately after this week’s test, China reacted mildly, saying only that it hopes Japan will not cause instability in the region.
“We have taken note that Japan has reiterated many times it will follow the path of peaceful development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference in Beijing. “We also hope that the relevant actions of the Japanese side will be conducive to safeguarding peace and stability in the region.”
The top MSDF commander, Adm. and Chief of Staff Eiji Yoshikawa, told a news conference in Tokyo after the missile test: “This system is simply for defense. We don’t recognize this weapon system as posing any threat to other countries.”
The government estimates that the cost of the missile shield will total ¥800 billion to ¥1 trillion, with ¥182 billion allocated for this year.
Kaji, a former senior officer of the Air Self-Defense Force, questions the wisdom of shoveling huge sums of money on joint missile development with the U.S.
“Generally speaking, the total costs of long-term joint development of military capabilities with another country tend to swell, possibly three or four times initial estimates,” Kaji said.
As Japan has been cutting its defense budget in recent years amid a huge national debt, spending so much money on the missile shield project could be “a big problem” for Japan’s defense policy, Kaji said.
Information from Reuters added