TOKYO—Japan’s new defense minister said that while the American alliance remains the core of security policy, he wants to improve ties between Chinese and Japanese armed forces as a means of dealing with China’s military rise.
“The U.S.-Japan security relationship is the cornerstone of our national security policy, but based on that foundation we need to improve relations with China,” Yasuo Ichikawa said Monday in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, his first with a foreign media organization since taking office Sept. 2.
Mr. Ichikawa also said the contract for a next-generation fighter aircraft, a long-delayed and highly anticipated project sought by three major global-defense contractors, will be awarded by year’s end.
Sino-Japanese relations have been strained by a series of recent incursions by Chinese ships into Japan’s territorial waters in the East China Sea. A war of words between Beijing and Tokyo followed the arrest of a Chinese fishing crew last year, raising alarms about China’s intentions toward its Asian neighbors. The dispute came just three months after the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, who as Japan’s prime minister had made improved ties with China a central focus of policy.
Japan’s new defense minister, appointed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, played down the territorial spat’s impact and stressed the importance of opening communication with his counterpart in China.
“I’d like to work toward increasing interaction between Japanese and Chinese defense personnel,” Mr. Ichikawa said, adding that he would try to visit China.
Such a trip would signal a thaw, and evoke Mr. Hatoyama’s embrace of China as a counterweight to the U.S., but Mr. Ichikawa said he had no intention of putting distance between Tokyo and Washington.
He added, however, that a resolution for a long-simmering controversy involving plans to relocate a U.S. military base in Okinawa may take time. While Washington’s desire to make progress is clear, the defense minister indicated Okinawan anti-base sentiment and budgetary limits might slow progress. The countries would share the cost of the move.
“We have to be mindful about the feelings of the Okinawan people and Japan’s own schedule issues, such as the deadline for budget requests” on defense-related allocations, he said.
In June, the U.S. and Japan agreed to postpone plans dating from 2006 to close a U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma in Okinawa until 2014, citing cost concerns and local opposition to the proposed relocated Okinawa base.
Still, Japan’s new defense minister signaled greater willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and other allies sharing the burden of developing advanced military technologies. Mr. Ichikawa said he favors moving swiftly with the Japanese government’s effort to study a relaxation of the country’s ban on arms exports, which has inhibited co-development of cutting-edge weapons.
“There is no set schedule, but it’s not the kind of problem that we can take too long to consider,” the defense minister said. “It’s important to start taking gradual steps to sound out a direction as soon as possible.”
He added that easing the ban would bolster Japanese manufacturers who are struggling from weak domestic demand.
The review of the restrictions on weapons exports is politically sensitive in Japan because of the country’s pacifist constitution. First established as policy in 1967, the principles were originally designed to prevent military technology from falling into the hands of Communist Bloc countries.
Earlier this month, the policy chief of the governing Democratic Party of Japan, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, ruffled feathers by openly calling for a review of the ban at a speech in Washington, apparently without first consulting with cabinet officials, including Mr. Ichikawa.
The issue of Japan’s ban on arms exports has loomed large as the country invests in developing expensive advanced weapons, such as ballistic-missile systems. The ban also has colored the debate on Japanese plans to procure a new generation of fighter planes, since Japan hasn’t been able to co-develop one with allies and missed an opportunity to do so with the F-35 joint-strike fighter program spearheaded by the U.S.
Mr. Ichikawa said that Japan will accept formal bids for its next-generation fighter on Sept. 26 and that he expects a decision to be reached by December as part of budgetary discussions for fiscal 2012—at least three years later than initially planned.
The fighter program, dubbed the FX in Japan, will likely call for the purchase of about 40 to 60 planes in a deal expected to total about $4 billion, according to industry officials.
In an era of declining defense budgets, the project has attracted three of the world’s biggest defense contractors: Boeing Co. with its F-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin Corp. with the F-35 JSF and Eurofighter GmbH with the Typhoon.
The latest delay in the FX program came earlier this year when the ministry, which had been expected to start vetting bids in March, postponed the process an additional six months because of the March 11 disasters.
The new fighter will replace Japan’s aging squads of F-4 Phantom fighters, made by McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing.