Sunday, 13 January 2013

Normalisation of Japan and simmering Island disputes

The South China Morning Post and other Japanese media reported on January 10 that Japan’s Ministry of Defence is considering authorising fighter jets from the country's Air Self-Defence Force to fire warning shots if Chinese planes enter airspace claimed by Japan.

According to another report issued in parallel, the ministry is also considering increasing the number of vessels from Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force in waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

At the moment it’s difficult to gauge the mood in Tokyo’s new centre-right government. There has been a marked increase in nationalist rhetoric over the past few months, especially regarding the disputed island chain known as ‘Senkaku’ in Japan and ‘Diaoyu’ in China. 

On the same day media reported potential new engagement rules for the Japanese military, a Japanese official denied the claims, citing a report in Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

Yet the report about the changing engagement rules might clear up what actually happened on January 10. Japan, it is being described, scrambled F-15 fighter jets to intercept 10 Chinese military aircraft flying close to Japanese airspace near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on Thursday.

The aircraft movements in the East China Sea are not out of place in the past few months.

Since April of 2012, and far before then, both China and Japan have almost come to blows over an island chain each claim control over. The belligerency is a microcosm of the increasing naval presence in the East and South China Seas of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) and the recent impressive rise of Japan’s own conventional military. The two militaries are butting heads more often in the crowded Western Pacific.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are described on Wikipedia as consisting of five total islands and “three rocks”. But their size is almost irrelevant. Their geographical position is everything.

In April 2012, the governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara announced that in cooperation with the United States, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government planned to purchase three of the islands in the tiny chain. At the time, private Japanese citizens owned the islands and it was assumed returning them to central Japanese control would assist in managing simmering tensions with Beijing.

China, predictably, took exception to this announcement for Japan to “nationalise” the islands. But the subsequent naval movements and argumentative landings Beijing attempted on the islands were carefully orchestrated. China is worried the islands may eventually fall into Japanese control, but in the short-term the announcement helped Beijing’s perpetually-struggling public relations department immensely.

The ill-timed Japanese proclamation served to shave some of the attention from Chinese actions in the South China Sea. PLA-N manoeuvres and exercises have attracted serious negative attention, especially with their aggressive and overly nationalistic demeanour. 

Many nations in the area feel concerned China’s expansion to implicit control over the South China Sea is simply not beneficial for the whole region. The Japanese announcement about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands last April gave Beijing useful ammunition to claim it is not the only government making nationalistic and aggressive claims to territory.  

Control over these islands has little to do with their potential for habitation. Their real value lies below the waves and in their position.

Large natural gas and oil reserves have been located throughout the South and East China Sea. While the largest are not near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, each landmass controlled, no matter how small, allows a country’s circle of influence to expand a bit more. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are no different.

Flare-ups over various islands in the region are nothing new. But for island nations such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, which rely heavily on sea-borne trade routes, keeping these lanes open is a matter of existential importance.

Nearly 82 percent of Japanese energy must be imported. This figure has already risen over the past two years following the shut-down of vulnerable nuclear plants and may rise further if more of these plants are closed in the future. Natural resources are scarce on the Japanese mainland and an unpredictable path must be sailed through seas increasingly populated by a increasingly assertive China.

All this said, Japan and China do have close economic ties. But Beijing has the upper hand in any territorial dispute. Threatening to limit or change trade restrictions on Japan are strong levers Beijing can pull to drive Tokyo’s future actions. 

Almost a quarter of all Japanese foreign non-manufacturing enterprises are based in China. This is not an insignificant amount, given the investment costs and lack of cheap alternatives for those businesses. In 2011, Japanese exports to China totalled US$161.4 billion. Furthermore, Chinese tourism provides 40 percent of rich, spend-happy overseas tourists to Japan each year.

Yet Japan is not a country without options, and those options are increasing in power each month. Japan has few economic levers of its own, and is relying on conventional area-denial or territorial claims to influence Beijing.

The present regional security and political concerns are hastening Japan’s motivation for normalisation. Normalisation is essentially the political procedure of removing limitations on the military set in place by allied powers following the conclusion of World War II.

Today, because of normalisation, Japan has one of the strongest conventional military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. This trend is encouraged by Japan’s long-time security guarantor: the United States.

Article 9 of the country’s U.S.-drafted constitution does essentially forbid the kind of conventional capabilities in which Tokyo has invested heavily, but a maturing relationship with Washington and a threatening regional situation with China are driving Japan’s upgrade.

The reports emanating from Japan about new aircraft interception rules indicate a growing Japanese public encouragement for rearmament as well. It doesn’t appear to be a unilateral Tokyo pushing for reforms while an ambivalent populace concedes.

A certain amount of fervent nationalism contributed to the recent election of the Liberal Democratic Party on December 16. This party is, as Robert D. Kaplan said amusingly, neither liberal nor democratic, nor really a party. Yet the party struck a chord with the Japanese populace who clearly expect to see a more assertive Japan in the future.

Tokyo is well aware of China’s intensifying push for more control over resources in the South China Sea and leverage over crucial sea lanes. To counter the rise of the PLA-N, Tokyo will become more involved in the region. Whether this brings stability to a potentially explosive situation remains to be seen, but parity in warfare can often create balance.

A Western fear of Japanese remilitarisation is certainly founded. Many people who still live fought during World War II and remember the last time Japan moved aggressively to secure trade routes and sea lanes.

However, the constraints for Japan and its regional environment are much different today. Occasional Chinese incursion into Japanese airspace aside, a certain amount of self-sufficient Japanese power will help keep the regional tensions to a low temperature in the Western Pacific.

A normalisation of Japan should not be considered a total negative development. Japan will be a more important country in the next few decades as China rises further. And a Japanese counterweight to the PLAN will facilitate tempered trade between Southeast Asian nations, Japan, and China.

Rules of engagement for Japan’s military will probably have to be altered to reflect the changing environment, despite what Japanese officials say. But such alterations could significantly affect the political situation in Japan. 

Japan has not fielded a large military for decades, allowing it to focus any defence-allocated funds into their economy instead, driving enormous growth during the 1980’s and 90’s. It will pay to watch the reactions of South Korea and Russia to the re-awakening Japanese military.

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