China’s growing military might means it now poses a greater threat to Japan than North Korea, the government in Tokyo has suggested.
The Japanese government’s annual defence review, which was published on Thursday, said the People’s Republic is rapidly closing its military capability gap with the United States and projecting its influence into the western Pacific with increasing assertiveness.
But a worrying lack of transparency about its intentions and an increase in long-range bomber flights and naval exercises near Japan “represent a serious security concern for the region,” the report said.
"The reality is that China is rapidly increasing military spending," Defence Minister Taro Kono said at a media briefing. "China is deploying air and sea assets in the Western Pacific and through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency."
China hit back at the report. Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said the country would not accept “"groundless criticism" of its normal national defence and military activities.
The annual White Paper painted a worrying picture of mounting tension and discord in east Asia, confirming for the first time that North Korea has miniaturised nuclear warheads that can be mounted on missiles.
Analysts said the decision to devote its second chapter after the one on the United States, Japan’s main ally, to China indicated a shift in the hierarchy of perceived threats.
North Korea, which has dominated previous publications, was pushed into third place. Russia, which has mounted joint air and naval exercises with China and is in dispute with Japan over islands occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, came fourth.
It also downgraded Japan’s alliance with South Korea, which ended an intelligence cooperation pact that saw the neighbours sharing sensitive information about threats such as North Korea’s nuclear program last month.
Tensions between the neighbours have been growing amid trade disputes and a row about Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War.
The South Korean government criticised the report for referencing a rock in the Sea of Japan, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, which both sides claim ownership of.
"Our government strongly protests Japan's repeated claim. The Japanese government should acknowledge that it is not helpful for bilateral relations," South Korea's foreign ministry said.
China will showcase its latest military hardware at their National Day military parade on Tuesday to mark 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China.
The parade is expected to include the new DF-51 intercontinental missile that can reportedly carry up to ten nuclear warheads and reach the United States.
Supersonic drones, battle tanks, and 15,000 personnel are also expected to be on display.
A new version of the H-6 bomber called the H-6N is will reportedly be revealed at the parade. Recent photos of the H-6N sporting an aerial refueling probe on its nose suggest the new model will have a greater capacity to strike deeper into the Pacific.
The photos also show a large recess under the fuselage that is expected to hold a heavy anti-ship ballistic missile, potentially threatening US aircraft carriers in the region.