By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan on Tuesday flagged the Chinese army's growing role in shaping the country's foreign policy as a security risk, saying a sense of caution exists across East Asia about Beijing's apparent military expansion in the region.
In its annual defense white paper, Tokyo said some believe that relations between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist Party leadership were "getting complex" and said this was a matter of concern.
There is a possibility that the degree of military influence on foreign policy decisions has been changing, the paper said, without elaborating.
"This situation calls for attention as a risk management issue," it added.
The report comes out at a time when China's senior officers, intelligence advisers and maritime agency chiefs have been increasingly outspoken in calling for Beijing to take a tougher line in regional territorial disputes with rival claimants.
In referring to those disputes, which include a long-simmering row with Japan in the East China Sea, Tokyo's views echoed the findings of a 2011 paper which welcomed China's growing role on the world stage while noting its increasingly aggressive moves.
"China has responded to conflicting issues involving Japan and other neighboring countries in a way that has been criticized as assertive, raising worries about its future direction."
Just like a year ago, Tokyo also noted China's rapid military build-up, particularly that of its navy, pointing out that Beijing's defense budget has risen 30-fold in the past 24 years.
Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto said the sense of caution is shared by many countries in the region. "It is not that caution has been rising. But it is true that there exists a certain sense of caution not only in Japan but across East Asia regarding which way China is headed," Morimoto told reporters.
A Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman repeated the country's standard line that its military modernization is both transparent and not aimed at any other country.
But spokesman Geng Yansheng criticized "irresponsible statements" by certain unnamed Japanese officials over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and said China would defend its rights.
"Protecting national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests is the common responsibility of all concerned departments, including the military, and we will closely coordinate with other departments in conscientiously discharging our responsibilities," he told reporters in Beijing.
SUPERPOWERS FLEX MUSCLES
As well as the Japan-China row over islets in the East China Sea, tensions have risen in the South China Sea as Beijing has become more assertive in its claim to the area in the face of opposition from neighboring countries.
The stakes have risen in the region as the U.S. military has shifted its attention and resources back to Asia in the past year.
In the white paper, Tokyo reaffirmed the importance of its alliance with the United States. "The presence of U.S. forces stationed in Japan functions as deterrent against regional contingencies, and it brings the sense of security to countries in the region," it said.
The official reassurance comes against a backdrop of public protests against the planned deployment of U.S. Osprey military hybrid helicopter-planes to a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa, because of concerns about their safety.
And in its first defence white paper since Kim Jong-un took over the reins of power in North Korea, Japan said the aspiring nuclear power's militaristic strategy meant it remained a major security threat.
"After the death of National Defence Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il, First Chairman Kim Jong-un frequently visited the military and referred to the importance of the military. Its stance of regarding the military as important and relying on it will likely be maintained," it said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Jeremy Laurence)