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Japan to raise armed forces mobility to boost defense

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Vice Defense Minister Jun Azumi said Japan’s armed forces need to improve their mobility to boost the country’s defense capability in the southwest, where it shares a maritime border with China.

Azumi also said Japan aims to strengthen its security cooperation with South Korea, Australia and India, on top of its ties with closest ally the United States, as North Korea’s artillery shelling of the South last month raised regional tensions.

“In a sense, the Cold War era structure has remained unchanged in the Far East. Only, China’s military expansion has added to instability,” Jun Azumi told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

“Our attention was on the north during the Cold War. But we have to shift our focus to the defense of southwest ... The most important step to strengthen our defense over the next 10 years is to secure the mobility (of our troops).”

Japan’s defense capability has traditionally been allocated heavily in the north to respond to potential threats from the former Soviet Union.

Azumi said the timing is right for Japan and South Korea to deepen their security ties.

“Given our history, there might have been reluctance on the South Korean side (for security cooperation with Japan). But due to the North Korean situation, the environment for such talks is developing,” Azumi said.

“We are set to have various talks with high-ranking people within the South Korean government from now on.”

South Korean military officers are participating in a joint military exercise between Japan and the United States this week for the first time as observers.

Azumi also said Japan’s weapons export ban needs to be revised to fit the changing security environment.

“The weapons export ban is out of sync with the current situation and this needs to be pointed out, and how we can improve it needs to be considered,” Azumi said.

Japan in 1967 drew up “three principles” on arms exports, banning sales to countries with communist governments or that are involved in international conflicts or subject to United Nations sanctions.

But the rules eventually became almost a blanket ban on arms exports and on the development and production of weapons with countries other than the United States.

The ban prohibits Japan’s defense industry from joining multinational projects such as the Lockheed Martin-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and makes it difficult for Japanese defense contractors such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to drive down costs and keep up with cutting-edge arms technologies.

“The way the problem needs to be addressed will be mapped out in the National Defense Program Guideline (NDPG),” Azumi said.

Japan plans to update its national defense policy outline by the end of the year.

The Nikkei business daily said on Wednesday the export ban will not be eased in the forthcoming NDPG.

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Chris Gallagher