Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Sanae Takaichi, a contender in the ruling party’s Sept. 29 presidential election, said Sunday that it is “absolutely necessary” for the United States to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Japan amid the growing security threat from China.

Speaking on a television program, the former internal affairs minister was the sole candidate to back the idea among the four contenders in the LDP race that will effectively determine the country’s next prime minister.

“Deploying intermediate-range missiles is absolutely necessary to protect the lives and territory of the Japanese people,” she said, adding that as prime minister, she would proactively ask the U.S. to deploy the weapons to Japan.

Having the U.S. missiles, she said, would allow for a deterrent against nuclear-armed North Korea, but would also have the range to cover military bases on the Chinese mainland.

Speaking on the same program, former Defense Minister Taro Kono, another candidate in the race for the LDP presidency, said it was “meaningless” to discuss the issue without a clear division of roles for the U.S. and Japan. Fumio Kishida, a former top diplomat and contender in the LDP election, echoed this sentiment, saying that much would depend on the details of any plan, while lawmaker Seiko Noda, who entered the LDP race at the 11th hour, called the idea “extremely dangerous,” saying that diplomacy must take precedence over any military push.

After U.S. President Donald Trump opted out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia in August 2019, his defense chief, Mark Esper, said Washington had hoped to deploy new ground-based intermediate-range missiles to Asia to counter the Chinese missile threat.

Left unconstrained by the INF Treaty, which banned all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (310 to 3,420 miles), China is believed to have amassed hundreds of missiles capable of striking Japan, including U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture and elsewhere in the country. The U.S., meanwhile, only began developing a missile of that range in 2018.

The proposed move, however, stalled over a number of issues, including finding a country to host the weapons, and inevitably absorb China’s anger. It’s also unclear if Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, will actively pursue such a plan.

But while a potential deployment to Japan — most likely to Okinawa Prefecture — would be optimal from Washington’s perspective, it would also be a politically sensitive matter for Tokyo and the U.S. alliance, observers say.

Okinawa, already home to the bulk of U.S. military facilities, has been the site of heated protests over the American presence there. Deploying weapons to the prefecture, which would be an almost certain target for Chinese missiles in the event of conflict with the United States, would only add fuel to that controversy.

Takaichi, an eight-term Lower House lawmaker is known as a hawk on China and has faced criticism in the past from Beijing over her frequent visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by Japan’s neighbors as a symbol of its past militarism.

In the runup to the election, the former internal affairs minister, who has won the endorsements of other China hawks such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current defense chief Nobuo Kishi, has also voiced a need for bolstering Japan’s deterrent and response capabilities in the event of a contingency over Taiwan while also targeting China over the alleged theft of cutting-edge Japanese technology.

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