WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering the possibility of expanding missile defenses in Asia in response to threats from North Korea and aggressive moves by China, U.S. defense officials said.
Two U.S. officials said the Pentagon has been discussing with Japan a new radar installation on a southern Japanese island. An eventual installation in Southeast Asia would complete a more robust defense system if a location can be found, one of the officials said.
While the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday night that the United States planned such an expansion of anti-missile defenses, the officials said no decisions are imminent and called the system a possibility in view of the North Korean threat. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The Pentagon's willingness to make it known that new installations of advanced X-Band radar arrays are under consideration is intended to reassure U.S. allies as China increases defense spending and contests jurisdiction over maritime territories with countries including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, one of the officials said.
Deploying a second X-Band system to southern Japan, in addition to one already installed in the country's north, makes sense in light of North Korea's saber-rattling, the second official said. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown no willingness since assuming power in December to abandon his regime's nuclear weapons program, and he oversaw an attempted launch of a long-range rocket in April.
"If they are moving down to Southeast Asia, they are probably making an effort to counter Chinese missile systems," Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said of the reported missile defense plan. "The Chinese would probably think about how they would have to counter these counters, and that would probably mean acquiring more systems or perhaps targeting those radar sites."
Pentagon spokeswoman Wendy Snyder in Washington said she couldn't immediately comment, and Japan's top spokesman also declined to comment.
The X-Band radar is "a high-powered, phased-array radar designed to meet near-term ballistic missile threats from rogue states," according to the website of the system's maker, Raytheon, based in Waltham, Mass.
Japan and the U.S. have decided not to put the new radar facility on Okinawa, given tensions over the American military presence there, according to the Journal, which said the Philippines is a possible site in Southeast Asia.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, declined to comment on the Journal article.
North Korea is building a new launchpad for firing larger long-range missiles at its Musudan-ri site in the northeast, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington said on its website in May. Japan is beefing up its anti- ballistic missile defense system in concert with the U.S. and "most of that is geared against North Korea," Bitzinger said.
China continued "sustained investments" in advanced cruise and anti-ship missile technologies last year that "appear designed" to blunt U.S. military access to the region, the Pentagon said in a May report. The missiles are designed for launch to a general location, where the guidance systems take over and target U.S. aircraft carriers for attack, with warheads intended to destroy aircraft on deck, airplane-launching gear and control towers.
Elements of the X-Band radar system can be deployed aboard Navy ships to support tests of U.S. missile-defense systems and to provide coverage against possible threats.
Placing the radar in Southeast Asia would mean "the U.S. would actually have to step up patrols in the South China Sea and place these large destroyers in that region on basically regular patrols," Bitzinger said. "That could be obviously taken by the Chinese as provocative."
One of the U.S. officials said the Philippines and Vietnam have been reluctant to host permanent U.S. military facilities for fear of provoking China.
China called for the U.S. to stop gathering intelligence in waters off its shores after a 2009 incident in which its vessels harassed an American naval vessel 75 miles south of Hainan Island. The U.S. views the South China Sea as international waters and has repeatedly called for maritime states to respect freedom of navigation.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in June became the highest- ranking American official to visit Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War, reflecting the U.S.'s expanding ties with a former enemy as China's rise realigns relationships in the region.
In November, Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a defense accord to deploy American Marines on Australian bases in 2012.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join other leaders at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia, next month.