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Tokyo’s plan to develop anaircraft carrier capable of launching fighter jets is driven by Beijing’smilitary rise, but the move could embolden hawkish generals in China to pressahead with their own expansion programmes, observers said.


The ruling LiberalDemocratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito Party this weekapproved a new defence guideline that will effectively allow the Japanesemilitary to convert naval vessels currently capable of carrying onlyhelicopters into fully operational aircraft carriers able to launch fighterjets like the F-35.


The plan is controversial asunder its pacifist constitution, Japan has never before owned such advancednaval hardware.


Song Zhongping, a militarycommentator based in Hong Kong, said Tokyo’s plan would make an already fragile Sino-Japaneserelationship even more uneasy.


“Japan has so far refused torecognise its aggression against China during the second world war,” he said.“Any move to build its first aircraft carrier would not only violate itspacifist constitution – which forbids it from operating such an attack vessel –but would also make China and other countries that were victims of itsaggression very uneasy.”


The planwas “obviously targeting China”, Song said as Beijing had accelerated its ownnaval build up with the addition of advanced destroyers and aircraft carriers.


Beijinghas made significant advances in its naval firepower in recent years. Italready has one aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – in active service, and asecond – the domestically developed Type 001A – is set to join it next year. By2030, at least four aircraft carrier battle groups are expected to be inservice.


Despite Tokyo’s plans to have a carrier capable of hostingfighter jets, Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said it waspremature to assume Japan’s Izumo-class vessels would be a match for China’smuch larger ships.


“It willbe a costly job to convert an Izumo-class destroyer into a real aircraftcarrier. It will take a lot of time and involve a lot of sophisticatedtechnologies,” he said.


“And evenif the project can be done, how can a 27,000-tonne warship deal with China’sType 001 Liaoning aircraft carrier, which is several times bigger?”


CollinKoh Swee Lean, a defence expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of InternationalStudies in Singapore, said Tokyo’s plan might provoke a backlash not only fromChina but also the two Koreas, and intensify naval competition in northeastAsia.


“Thatcould lead to countries boosting their countervailing capabilities throughdefence build-ups, and even enhancing defence and security engagements withpowers from outside the region,” he said.


Macau-basedmilitary expert Antony Wong Dong said, however, that Japanese Prime MinisterShinzo Abe was using the naval defence plan to bolster his approval ratings.


“It isnot a good idea to upgrade or refit a giant warship, based on China’s costlyexperience of modifying the Liaoning,” he said.


But Abewanted to “test the temperature of the trouble waters” as China and the USremained embroiled in a power struggle over geopolitics and trade, he said.


TheLiberal Democratic Party does at least appear aware of the concerns of itsneighbours. After initially proposing the introduction of a “multi-purposedefensive aircraft carrier”, it later reworded the guideline to say the Izumowould be upgraded as “multi-purpose destroyer”.