Japanese rocket fuels fears of arms race in East Asia

JAPAN will launch a satellite-carrying rocket tomorrow that could also be used as an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) to deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world. The planned launch of the H-II rocket from the southern island of Tanega-shima comes amid increasing concern that a hi-tech arms race in East Asia has begun.

The most destabilising development so far in the region has been the apparent nuclear weapons programme in Communist North Korea, and its building of long- range missiles which could serve as delivery vehicles. But at the same time China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are all rushing to acquire new weapons systems and increase their defence budgets - even as Western countries cut theirs.

The H-II rocket has been under development for a decade, and is the first rocket entirely designed and built in Japan. There have been several setbacks to the rocket programme, including an explosion of one of the engines during a test in August 1991 that killed one engineer. Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, it is already two years behind its planned launching date.

On its maiden voyage, the H-II will carry a small saucer-shaped reentry vehicle called the Orex, which will test the resistance of materials to the high temperatures involved in re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. But while Japan officially says the H-II would only be used for peaceful purposes, military analysts have pointed out that the rocket could function equally as an ICBM, traversing the globe before re-entering the atmosphere. And with its stockpile of plutonium and its technological expertise, few doubt that the country could build a nuclear warhead at short notice.

Japan has an extensive civilian nuclear programme, and is scrupulous in allowing full inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, the conversion of civilian to military use of its plutonium would be relatively simple. And the fact that the H-II, unlike previous Japanese rockets, has not been built using US technology, means that Japan does not have to open the rocket programme to US inspections over dual civilian-military use. The H-II has already cost more than pounds 1.5bn to develop, and although it is touted as a commercial satellite launcher, its costs per launch will be about double that of the European Ariane rockets.

North Korea, whose suspected nuclear weapons programme has already sent shock waves through the region, last April successfully test- launched the Rodong 1 missile over the Japan Sea. The Rodong 1, a modified Scud missile, has a range of 1,000km (600 miles), which would put South Korea and large parts of Japan - including its second city, Osaka - within range.

In response, the US decided last week to send Patriot anti-missile missiles to South Korea. Seoul is also receiving other advanced weapons systems, including new Apache attack helicopters, to counter recent assessments that South Korea's military capability has not been updated sufficiently in recent years. Last year the Pentagon also suggested that it could help Japan to set up a Theatre Missile Defence system using scaled-down Star Wars technology to defend against the North Korean threat.

Behind the immediate military threat from 22 million North Koreans lies the long-term threat from 1.2 billion Chinese - the only self- avowed nuclear power in Asia. China's weapons systems are still relatively outmoded, but with a doubling of its defence budget since 1988 and a shift towards the air force and navy in a clear attempt to be able to project power beyond its land borders, Chinese military potential is already causing alarm in the region.

View from Tokyo, page 24

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