Wednesday, 12 June 2013

How Chinese expansion is fueling Japan's military growth

According to a visiting Japanese military academic, Japan must learn to rely less on assistance from the United States and take personal responsibility of its territorial waters and islands in response to increasingly aggressive Chinese movements in the East China Sea.

Discussing the complex relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in a refreshingly frank seminar at Auckland University this week, Professor Noboru Yamaguchi of the National Defence Academy of Japan highlighted the centrality of a strong Japan to ration Chinese expansion.

A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, foreground,
sails alongside a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. - Asahi Shimbun file photo
When questioned about whether this personal responsibility would entail Tokyo investing in a larger fleet of warships, Professor Yamaguchi’s answered that Japan’s military must be able to counter any threat to its territorial integrity. Japan’s navy already sails one of the strongest fleets in the world, despite constitutional restrictions on military spending and capabilities.

While the trend of China’s rise in the Asia Pacific has helped invigorate the region economically, Professor Yamaguchi emphasised the importance of maintaining a positive-sum game with Beijing, one in which all sides benefit, while avoiding the slide into a potentially catastrophic zero-sum slugging match with the potential to immolate the entire region.

Some of these flashpoints for Japan and China are already making international headlines this year. Contested islands in the South and East China Seas, as well as access to those bodies of water, have oscillated between simmering and barely contained. The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) are a particularly fragile flashpoint with seemingly equal national and strategic interest for both Tokyo and Beijing.

The fragility of this particular situation is increased by a number of factors. These include Chinese People’s Liberation Army - Navy (PLA-N) exercises near the islands, the constant Chinese surveillance over-flights in Japanese airspace, and fiery rhetoric from the Chinese government. And just like Professor Yamaguchi, Japanese defence experts worry that China’s military power might be becoming unmanageable.

In response, both the Japanese and Chinese navies in the East China Sea are conducting increasingly violent and active manoeuvres to thwart each other. And the constant games are extremely exhausting. Although the Japanese government had no problem with Soviet warships moving in and through the East China Sea during the Cold War, Japanese interactions with the PLA-N are markedly different.

Tokyo also realises the Unites States does not wish to spend a great amount of effort assisting Japan’s tenuous territorial disputes. Officially, the United States - bound by the Japanese constitution to defend Japan in place of a robust Japanese military - takes no position on disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But Washington respects its responsibility to Japan, so long as a number of conditions are met.

First, to intervene in any dispute over the islands, Washington must be convinced the islands are under Japanese control, which they presently are not. Second, Washington must conduct any intervention jointly with the Japanese military, a task which would be heavily weighted towards the capabilities of the U.S. Navy rather than the much smaller Japanese navy.

And third, the islands must be under armed attack. This condition does not recognise the recent episodes of Chinese civilians landing on the windswept rocks to plant flags and chant Chinese nationalist songs. The provocations must be more dynamic if the United States is to be dragged into the fray.

But the dynamism of the region is quickly becoming a festering wound. Professor Yamaguchi, who has since retired from the Japan Self Defence Force, pointed to Chinese helicopters flying within a few hundred metres of Japanese warships, and fixed-wing surveillance aircraft penetrating Japanese-controlled airspace near disputed islands as examples which are particularly nerve-wracking for Japanese military members.

Because the disputed islands sit so far from either Japanese or Chinese land-based early warning radar stations – about 200 kilometres for Japan and about 300 kilometres for China – Professor Yamaguchi describes the need for constant surveillance from both nations. Presently, this job is slightly simpler for Japan, due to its relative proximity, than it is for China. However China’s speedy development of an indigenous aircraft carrier program could change the balance of power in the region and offer Beijing more options when it comes to projecting force or protecting lines of communication into the Pacific Basin.
As an example of this trend, a Chinese aircraft penetrated Japanese airspace a few months ago. Japanese ships near the islands raised the alarm. And it took 15 to 20 minutes for Japanese fighter jets to arrive and interdict the Chinese aircraft. By that time the Chinese plane had already departed. Professor Yamaguchi explains that had the surveillance aircraft been operating instead from the deck of a functional Chinese aircraft carrier, a similar Japanese response would be diplomatically impossible, not to mention potentially deadly.

Professor Yamaguchi also described the reported targeting of a Japanese warship with a Chinese “fire-control radar” – a target locking system used to direct the strike of weapons – as a remarkable, and hopefully non-repeatable, episode of today’s high stakes games on the high seas. When Tokyo officially confronted Beijing about the incident, Chinese government officials flatly denied the accusation. The professor cheerfully described the denial as a heartening sign, indicating China does not wish malice on Japan.

He explained that if Beijing chose instead to embrace the overtly hostile military action while displaying little concern for Japanese indignation, then relations between Beijing and Tokyo would be dangerously different. Professor Yamaguchi indicates that economic cooperation between China and Japan, rather than belligerency and conflict, is still very important for Beijing and currently overrides any desires to ratchet tensions higher.

Professor Yamaguchi described himself as an optimist, and views United States President Obama’s first official foreign visit in 2008, when he chose to go to Japan, as a clear sign that the Asia Pacific region will be crucially important to the world in the future. The key to a peaceful century is finding areas of cooperation, rather than tension, between the larger powers. He believes this is eminently possible, so long as trust and transparency remain high.

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