BRUSSELS — Japan's ambassador to the EU says Tokyo plans to take a much bigger role in "shouldering the burden of global defense and security."

Speaking in Brussels, Keiichi Katakami said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to allow the country's military forces to play a more active role in self-defense, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

"The world faces growing security international threats and Japan wants to play a leading role in combating this." Katakami said.

Katakami, Japan's top diplomat in Brussels, cited closer cooperation with the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy as one example of where Japan might flex its military power in the future. He was speaking on Tuesday at a high-level conference, organized by the EU-Asia Centre, on "Japan's changing international role."

"Japan and the rest of the world are facing fresh challenges by those who choose to use force and intimidation and Japan," said Shingo Yamagami, director general of the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

The event heard that Japan, which had once been regarded as a passive international actor, was now taking a more prominent role on regional and global security.

The Japanese government, however, plans to acquire a greater range of ship-borne interceptors, upgrading two of Japan's six Aegis ships and building two more. It is also considering buying a U.S. land-based, high-altitude interception system.

The Defense Ministry plans to develop an improved version of the SM-3 interceptor rocket carried by Aegis vessels. The ministry is also examining the U.S. military's ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD.

This comes partly as a response to rapid changes in the region, particularly the dramatic increase in China's power and North Korea's recent nuclear test and rocket launch, which have again heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Abe recently approved a record 5.05 trillion yen (US $41.4 billion) defense budget for fiscal 2016/2017. This marks the fourth consecutive rise in defense spending since Abe assumed office in December 2012.

Defense spending for the next fiscal year starting in April 2016 will be heavily focused on solidifying Japan's position in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The Ministry of Defense's 10-year National Program Guidelines — subdivided into two five-year Mid-Term Defense Programs — has allocated 23.97 trillion yen (US $199.5 billion) within five years (2014-2018) toward the creation of more amphibious warfare capabilities and a lighter "Dynamic Joint Defense Force."

By 2023, the Ministry of Defense plans to convert seven out of the current 15 Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) brigades and divisions into mobile divisions and brigades that can be more easily transferred to the East China Sea in the event of a crisis.

The fiscal 2016/2017 shopping list encompasses 11 units of AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles made by BAE Systems — Japan is in the process of setting up an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade by 2017 — 17 Mitsubishi SH-60K anti-submarine warfare helicopters, four Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft (a hybrid between a conventional helicopter and turboprop plane), three Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, six F-35A Lightning II fighter planes, one Kawasaki C-2 military transport aircraft, and 36 new, lighter maneuver combat vehicles (MCVs).

Addressing the same Brussels briefing, Luis Simon, of the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, said: "We hear a lot about how important the US is for Japan, but less so about how important Japan is to the US. And I would actually say that Japan has arguably become America's most important ally, and not just in Asia. I think the revised US-Japan 2015 defense guidelines, sort of confirm that, and the reasons for this are rather evident. Because, notwithstanding the ongoing importance of Europe, the Middle East and other regions, the Pentagon's long-term planning when it comes to capability development and force structure is focused primarily on the Asia-Pacific. And Japan is the cornerstone of US defense strategy and force posture in the Asia-Pacific.

"When it comes to security in the Asia-Pacific and, more specifically, in Northeast Asia, Japan and the US are concerned pretty much about the same issues. One issue is, of course, the growing nuclear and missile threat posed by the DPRK. But arguably the broader, and more systemic geostrategic concern for the US-Japan alliance is the geopolitical and strategic rise of China and its potential to alter the balance of power in the region.

"More specifically, the revised US-Japan defense guidelines allude to China's advances in the realm of so-called anti-access and area denial capabilities by way of an expanding fleet of cruise and ballistic missiles, attack submarines, and electronic and cyber weapons. According to both the US and Japan, these capabilities could potentially hold at risk US regional bases but also US satellites and forwardly deployed naval and air assets in the Western Pacific, particularly within the so-called first island chain.

"China's expanding anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities represent a challenge to America's military posture in Japan, and to the cohesion of the US-Japan alliance.

"In order to survive, the US-Japan alliance must adapt to the changing geostrategic landscape. This means a greater, joint effort in the realms of missile defense, undersea warfare and cybersecurity. And the revised US-Japan defense guidelines do point in that direction. 

"It also means Washington's military footprint in Japan must be diversified. Right now most US military assets in Japan are concentrated in a handful of bases — in Okinawa, Yokosuka and Sasebo. And the new defence guidelines have concluded that the challenge of China's growing missile and A2/AD capabilities requires making available additional bases to US forces in Japan, including both other Japan Air Self-Defense Force bases or civil airfields."

Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.

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