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Japan, alarmed at fierce Chinese reaction to its efforts to solve the Senkakus dispute by nationalizing several of the uninhabited but oil-rich islands last year, is bolstering its military forces with both missile-detecting and maritime surveillance with drones.

Japanese Defense Ministry officials, quoted in press reports, have called the purchase of several long-range U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drones an urgent priority.

Tokyo is seeking up to three Global Hawks by 2015 but could speed up purchases in response to what it regards as growing Chinese aggressiveness toward Japan over the Senkakus.

The U.S. military currently has Global Hawks deployed at Guam.

The Japanese do not plan to develop armed drones and plan to limit initial purchases to the Global Hawk, which fly nearly 60,000 feet for extended missions. It is able to track vessels using sensors and radar.

Japan also is developing an unmanned drone aircraft that will be used to detect North Korean nuclear missile attacks and to counter the Chinese military buildup, the officials said.

The anti-missile drone program is being developed over the next four years with the first drone deployed by 2020. It will use infrared sensors designed to detect missiles shortly after launch.

China’s drone program is believed to have benefitted from its aggressive economic and cyber espionage operations against the United States. Those efforts have included breaking into both government and defense industry networks and stealing valuable drone technology.

Officials also said China’s drone program is receiving a boost from an unlikely source: Taiwan.

The largest Chinese drone production center is being built at Wuhan in Hubei province, site of a joint construction project by China’s Wuhan Visiontek Inc. and Taiwan’s Carbon-Based Technology, Inc.

Officials said China launched a crash program to develop military drones beginning around 2007. Beijing is planning a range of unmanned aircraft capabilities, including high-altitude, long-endurance drones, integrated air and sea warfare drones, sea-based drones and UCAVs.

More than 60 drones were on display in Beijing last June, including a drone helicopter, and a drone with simulated birds’ wings.

Additionally, officials have said drone bases are being set up in the South China Sea to monitor Scarborough reef, which is claimed by Philippines and China; Macclesfield Bank; the Paracel Islands; and the Spratly Islands. China also is using drone to monitor the Socotra Reef claimed by South Korea.

A report made public March 11 by the Project 2049 Institute on Chinese drones estimated that China has more than 280 military drones.

“The PLA has developed one of the largest and most organizationally complex UAV programs in the world,” the report stated.

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