TOKYO — Japan’s annual defense white paper says the country’s security environment is becoming increasingly severe amid challenges posed by China, North Korea and Russia.

The report, released Tuesday, details national security developments in the past year such as moves to lift a ban on arms exports and expand the role of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. It also lays out plans to strengthen those forces by acquiring new equipment and creating an amphibious brigade and a cyber-defense group.

The efforts have been greeted with suspicion by some of Japan’s neighbors, however, former U.S. Pacific Command chief Dennis Blair said last week that Washington welcomes a greater role for Japan’s military.

“We strongly support a more normal, more active, more responsible role for the SDFs of Japan,” Blair told a group of Japanese reporters during a visit to Tokyo to discuss the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

“Over the past 70 years, Japan has been one of a very small number of the most peaceful and responsible countries in the world,” he said. “Japan has a lot more to contribute to security.”

In North Asia, that task is becoming more challenging, according to the white paper’s authors.

“National security decision-making is more complex than ever before as some nations have important economic relationships despite differences in fundamental values and strategic interests,” they wrote.

The report details a series of “assertive measures” taken by China, which is involved in territorial disputes in the South and East China seas – including one with Japan over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands.

Japan is deeply concerned about China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which occurred in November. The white paper describes it as a dangerous act that unilaterally changes the status quo.

“China has been rapidly expanding and intensifying its activities in the seas and airspace,” the report states. “These measures include dangerous acts that could cause unintended consequences and raise concerns over China’s future direction.”

The Chinese national defense budget has quadrupled in the past decade, the report notes.

Richard Myers, a former U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman who was visiting Tokyo with Blair, said trying to isolate China would not help address security concerns.

“Encirclement of the Soviet Union worked because there was no economic relationship,” he said. “That won’t work with China because we are all dependent on each other for our economic well-being.”

However, Myers said economic ties must be weighed against maritime, cyber and space concerns.

The white paper warns that North Korea is reinforcing its military capabilities. It has successfully launched a three-stage rocket and carried out underground nuclear weapons tests but is not yet believed to have the capacity to make a bomb small and sturdy enough to put into a warhead.

“Should North Korea make further progress in its longer-range ballistic missile capability and simultaneously achieve the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and acquired nuclear warheads, North Korea may come to have a one-sided understanding that it secured strategic deterrence against the U.S.,” the report states.

This could lead to more frequent and severe military provocations by North Korea, the report states.

Scrambles by the Japanese Air Self Defense Force to intercept foreign aircraft — mostly Chinese and Russian planes — are happening at a rate comparable to that at the height of the Cold War. There were more than 800 in the 2013 fiscal year, the report states.

Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea — changing the status quo by coercion — also impacts Asia, the report adds.

The white paper talks about the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and highlights Japan’s efforts to reach out to its neighbors in Asia.

However, another former Joint Chiefs chairman, Mike Mullen, said Japan doesn’t appear to be having much luck connecting with South Korea despite shared concerns about China and North Korea.

Japan and South Korea have their own maritime dispute, over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, along with bad blood over Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea and its treatment of wartime sex slaves known as “comfort women.”

“My friends in Japan and my friends in South Korea say… (the relationship) is at a low point now,” Mullen said. “I hope it doesn’t deteriorate to the point where it really does impact the region in a very serious way.” Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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