U.S. seeking to bolster naval presence in Japan, defense report says

Kyodo, JIJI, Reuters

The United States is seeking to enhance its naval presence in Japan — as well as its overall military presence in Southeast Asia — according to a report released by the Quadrennial Defense Review on Tuesday.

The plan is part of a continued U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region occurring against the backdrop of China’s rising maritime assertiveness. In the report, the Defense Department issued a warning over the risk of conflict related to sovereignty and natural resources in the area.

“We will continue our contributions to the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, seeking to preserve peace and stability in a region that is increasingly central to U.S. political, economic, and security interests,” the report said.

The navy plans to station 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific by 2020, while the plan will also include “enhancements to our critical naval presence in Japan.”

Rear Adm. William Lescher, deputy assistant secretary of the navy for budget, told reporters that the U.S. Navy currently has some 50 ships in the Pacific. “We expect by 2020 the number would be up around 65,” he said.

The report mentioned “greater risk that tensions over long-standing sovereignty disputes or claims to natural resources will spur disruptive competition or erupt into conflict.”

The department did not name any specific country in the QDR report, but China has been involved in a spate of territorial disputes with countries such as Japan and the Philippines in the East China Sea and South China Sea, actively maneuvering its ships in waters near contested islands.

China separately said Wednesday that it will raise national military spending by 12.2 percent this year to 808.23 billion yuan ($131.6 billion), continuing a nearly unbroken run of double-digit hikes in the defense budget for the past two decades.

Much military spending takes place outside the budget, however, and many experts estimate real outlays are closer to $200 billion. The government announced its spending plan for the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army at the opening of parliament’s annual meeting.

China’s military spending is now second only to that of the United States, allowing Beijing to create a modern force that is projecting power deep into the disputed waters of the East and South China seas. The Pentagon’s base budget for fiscal 2014 is $526.8 billion.

At a time when Washington has stepped up its military presence in the region as part of a strategic “pivot” toward Asia, China is building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, and has tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in midair.

“The rapid pace and comprehensive scope of China’s military modernization continues, combined with a relative lack of transparency and openness from China’s leaders regarding both military capabilities and intentions,” the U.S. report said, adding, “Challenges to our many allies and partners around the globe remain dynamic and unpredictable, particularly from regimes in North Korea and Iran,” which have nuclear programs.

“The North Korean regime continues to pursue interests counter to those of the United States,” the paper said, adding that Washington “closely monitors the situation through military and diplomatic channels” in coordination with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

The department pledged to increase its strength in Guam by upping the number of naval and air force personnel and relocating Marine Corps functions there in order to achieve a “posture that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.”

The Japanese and U.S. governments also agreed Tuesday to collaborate on the design of small, high-speed vessels capable of carrying helicopters. Japan aims to develop the capacity to deploy such vessels for transport and mine sweeping operations in the region. Joint studies based on U.S. Navy littoral combat ships with such capabilities are planned as a first step in the project.