With the Liberal Democratic Party widely predicted to come out on top in Sunday’s election, Kevin Maher, a former senior U.S. State Department official, said an LDP-led government must act quickly to demonstrate Japan’s readiness to effectively respond to the threat posed by an increasingly bellicose China.

Maher, who was replaced as director of the Department of State’s Office of Japan Affairs in March 2011, said the row over the Senkaku Islands is just one example of the mounting regional threat stemming from China’s belligerent behavior.

However, he stressed that a display by Tokyo of its enhanced defense capabilities would send a strong message to Beijing that Japan is prepared to defend its sovereign territory alongside its key security partner, the United States.

“Japan is at a strategic crossroads right now with respect to China,” Maher, who served as U.S. consul general in Naha, Okinawa, from 2006 to 2009 before taking the helm at the Office of Japan Affairs, said in interview with The Japan Times.

“I hope the new government (that emerges after the Lower House poll) would be decisive and realistic about the threat from China,” he said.

Maher retired from the State Department in April last year, after assisting the post-Tohoku disaster relief effort. His earlier exit from the Japan desk followed alleged reports in Japanese media that he had referred to Okinawans as “masters of manipulation and extortion” during an off-the-record briefing with students in the U.S.

After China’s once-in-a-generation leadership change last month saw Xi Jinping emerge as its newly anointed president, the standoff over the Senkaku Islands, which fall under Okinawa’s jurisdiction but are claimed by Beijing, shows no sign of abating, with Chinese vessels repeatedly straying into Japan’s territorial waters around the uninhabited East China Sea islets.

On Thursday, a Chinese government airplane intruded into Japanese airspace over the Senkakus for the first time ever, according to records that have been kept since 1958, marking an escalation of the bitter dispute triggered by Japan’s purchase of three of the islets in September, a move that effectively nationalized the entire chain.

The Air Self-Defense Force scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets and dispatched an early warning E-2C plane to the area, but by the time the F-15s arrived, the Chinese aircraft had left.

According to Maher, Beijing is attempting to show the international community that it effectively controls the East and South China seas — which are plagued by competing sovereignty claims involving multiple countries, with China at the heart of virtually every dispute — and it is therefore critical that Japan maintain its military strength and presence in the region’s skies, to augment the United States’ current air supremacy.

He stressed that Japan needs to increase its defense budget, which at present accounts for less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product, to accelerate and expand defense-related programs.

As examples, he cited Tokyo’s procurement of fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters and Aegis-equipped Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, as well as the development of a missile defense system capable of shooting down intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Japan presently relies on Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air missiles produced in the U.S., and has been jointly developing SM-3 Block IIA interceptors with Washington since 1999 to defend against such threats as North Korea’s ever-improving ballistic missiles and rockets. The MSDF’s Aegis ships are equipped with SM-3 missiles.

Last year, Japan opted to purchase 42 F-35s for the Air Self-Defense Force by 2030, but Maher noted it’s entirely possible that China, which is rapidly beefing up and modernizing its military, could have even more stealth fighters in operation before that deal is completed.

He also said Japan should expedite plans to build military bases on the Sakishima island chain and on the country’s western-most isle of Yonaguni, both part of Okinawa. The Defense Ministry has earmarked ¥6.2 billion in its fiscal 2013 budget request to construct a base on Yonaguni and enhance its defenses, and is also considering building military installations in the Sakishimas.

“I understand all of these take time. . . . (But) making decisions now to do this together (with the U.S.) with real budgets sends a very important signal to China, and also sends a very important signal to Washington, that Japan is serious about meeting its own defense responsibility under the security alliance with the United States,” said Maher, who authored the book “The Japan That Can’t Decide” (“Ketsudandekinai Nippon”).

The Japanese public, however, appears skeptical that the U.S. military would actually come to Japan’s defense in a military crisis, for instance should the decades-old Senakakus dispute escalate into armed conflict.

Washington did go the extra mile by passing legislation earlier this month reaffirming its commitment to Tokyo under the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and warned that an armed attack against Japan or U.S. forces “in the territories under the administration of Japan” would be dealt with in accordance with its provisions — in other words, military intervention.

Maher underscored that the Japanese public needs to realize Washington and Tokyo will defend each other in unison, and that the U.S. will not act alone.

He meanwhile welcomed LDP chief Abe’s stance on enhancing the Japan-U.S. alliance by allowing the Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right of collective defense via a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution.

But Maher pointed out that Abe’s contentious plan to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 in order to rename the SDF as the National Defense Force, which in Japanese sounds more aggressive, would still be tricky to pull off, and noted Japan can boost its deterrence capability without having to push through a constitutional amendment.

On the Democratic Party of Japan’s three-plus years in power, Maher said it failed to decide on or enact a range of crucial policies, voicing hope that the next administration, presumably led by the LDP, will form a more efficient, effective and stable government.

He also stressed that whatever ruling force emerges from Sunday’s poll must act swiftly and avoid becoming embroiled in factional infighting or subjected to renewed pressure to call another election.

Japan has always used national elections as an excuse to put off important decisions, Maher said, but “decisions have to be made on many difficult problems.”

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