March 16th, 2016
By Dr. Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow
This month’s deployment of a US carrier group to the South China Sea marked the latest phase in the confrontation between Beijing and those opposed to its efforts to develop its military presence in the region. The recent news that China has deployed fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile batteries to Woody Island – a South China Sea territory under Beijing’s control that forms part of the disputed Paracel Islands chain – has only served to add to existing concerns regarding China’s expansionist tendencies. This development followed on from 2015’s controversy regarding Beijing’s land reclamation projects in the also contested Spratly Islands, an effort which has seen the transformation of a number of reefs and atolls into artificial islands – with the apparent intent that they will be utilised as military outposts designed to help prevent outside access to the region during wartime. Whilst both the fielding of the carrier group and a number of freedom of navigation exercises by the US and Australian militaries have sought to underline the lack of validity to China’s territorial claims, speculation that Beijing has come to regard control of the South China Sea as amongst its “core interests” – issues that are effectively non-negotiable – indicates that it is unlikely that the situation will be resolved anytime soon.
However, the recent controversies in the South China Sea have been just one of a series of developments that have fed into wider changes to the regional security dynamic. This trend has seen China shift from a narrative of a ‘peaceful rise’ to one that could almost have been designed to systematically alienate its neighbours. Numerous theories have been put forward to explain this tendency, but the net result has been an increasingly hard push-back amongst the region’s powers. At the head of this shift has been a remarkable transformation of the regional position of Japan. By examining the recent changes to the stance adopted by Tokyo, it is possible to discern that – whilst it will never take over the role of the US in ensuring stability – the country is currently in the process of positioning itself as a leader in the drive to contain Beijing’s ambitions.
The Chinese challenge to Tokyo is not entirely new. However, the twin catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – together with the lengthy recovery period the resultant damage necessitated – left China disproportionately weak, leading to other threats to Japan taking priority. The Cold War saw the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) orientate themselves on the defence of the main northern home island of Hokkaido from Soviet invasion, with additional responsibilities progressively added – including sea line of communication (SLOC) protection duties – as part of both a US desire for Japan to take greater responsibility for its own defence and as a reaction to Moscow’s then growing power. The 1990s and 2000s saw Russia inherit the USSR’s legacy as the main security threat, albeit one that was often overshadowed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This period also featured limited attempts by Japan to expand its involvement in international security actions – notably in Iraq and off the coast of Somalia. However, the close of the first decade of the 21st century saw much of the JSDF deployed and configured to fight a Soviet force that had ceased to exist in 1991.
Japan’s principal concerns with regards to the challenge China poses to its own security are two-fold. In the immediate, Tokyo has its own territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea over ownership of the Senkaku Islands. This uninhabited territory is in of itself unremarkable, although its location adjacent to fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves make the islands a useful economic resource. However, it is the second (and potentially existential) threat of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force (PLAN/PLAAF) gaining open access to the maritime region surrounding Japan during wartime that represents the greatest challenge to the country. As an island nation lacking in natural resources and dependent on both trade in peacetime and foreign military support in the event of a protracted war, Japan is almost completely reliant on the security of its SLOC that run from the country’s southern approaches to the Middle East and Europe and its western approaches across the Pacific to North and South America. Were these to be closed or even significantly disrupted, Tokyo would be placed in an untenable position.
The key to Japan’s security in relation to China is, therefore, to defend the country’s most exposed territories from attack and keep open Japan’s SLOC. Taken together, these challenges echo those Tokyo faced in confronting the USSR. But whilst for many nations the need to prepare for a type of warfare that has not been of relevance in a quarter of a century would prove to be a major undertaking (as many European NATO states are now discovering), the pre-2011 refusal of Japan to abandon its official perception of Post-Soviet Russia being the primary threat to the country has actually worked to its advantage against China. Additionally, whilst many Western states took the post-Cold War opportunity to cut their militaries, Japan’s (admittedly modest) defence spending remained relatively constant – in large part because of the expense of sustaining readiness for conventional warfare. The net result of this is that Japan has been able to maintain a force structure and equipment inventory that provides a solid base upon which it can mould an approach for containing Beijing.
The first concrete steps in reorientating Japan’s defence towards China came via the Tokyo government’s 2011 Defense White Paper, the National Defense Program Guidelines for 2011 and Beyond (NDPG 2011+), and the Mid-Term Defense Program 2011-15. These documents for the first time – and much to the annoyance of Beijing – formally outlined Tokyo’s concerns regarding China’s military build-up, activities and posture, as well as a number of modest measures to address the threat. In particular, the NDPG 2011+ introduced the ‘Dynamic Defense Forces’ concept, which was designed to move Japan from a relatively static defence posture to one that would be better able to adapt to a wider range of threats. The papers did, of course, encompass a wide range of security challenges facing Japan – ranging from North Korea to natural disasters – but their implicit and explicit shift in stance towards Beijing was perceived to be the dominant theme.
However, if the changes in thinking the above documents reflected were striking, the practical implications were modest. At the most basic level, posture changes either ordered or eluded to in the NDPG 2011+ only required either continuing with existing defence programmes (though with different contingencies in mind) or a limited physical movement of assets from one part of Japan to another. The only significant equipment uplift of the review was a plan to increase the number of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) submarines from sixteen to twenty-two. This aside, the NDPG 2011+ primarily focused on the need to transfer forces into a position where they could assist in the defence of the country’s southwestern islands. Even here, the changes proposed within the NDGP 2011+ were limited, with a call for the stationing of additional early warning and air defence assets on the Ryukyu Islands, as well as enhanced surface and sub-surface patrols in the region by the JMSDF.
Ultimately, it was only to be the coming to power of a new government with a desire to reimagine Japan’s regional role that would enable the necessary changes to take root. This event occurred in late 2012, when Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won a resounding victory in Japan’s general election. Whilst he briefly held Japan’s highest governmental office from 2006 to 2007, it was only upon his return to power that he was able to truly begin to make his mark. Although more internationally renowned as the father of ‘Abenomics’, Abe has also overseen substantial shifts in Japan’s defence and foreign policy.
2013 saw the publication of both the National Defense Program Guidelines for 2014 and Beyond (NDPG 2014+) and the Mid-Term Defense Program 2014-18. The headline development was that Japan’s defence budget would be boosted by five per cent over five years, the latest instalment of which was authorised in December 2015. This money will be translated into substantial capability enhancements. These will include an additional six destroyers, taking the total fleet size to fifty-four; new airborne early warning and inflight refuelling aircraft; the purchase of three Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft; extra anti-submarine warfare helicopters; and Japan’s continued participation in the F-35 programme. More profound, however, is the decision to form a new offensive capability in the form of an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade. To be supported by seventeen V-22 Osprey aircraft and amphibious vehicles, this force is designed to “enable the SDF [Self-Defence Forces] to land, recapture and secure without delay any remote islands that might be invaded”. Roughly translated, this means that were China to invade the Senkaku Islands, Japan would have a force capable of counter-attacking, a task for which it currently relies on the US.
However, it is the fundamental reorientation of the JDSF towards the protection of the south-eastern territories of Japan that really brings the ‘Great Wall’ analogy into focus. Geographically, any PLA aircraft or ship that wishes to leave the East China Sea without passing through the Taiwan Strait has to transit close to Japanese territory. The decision has therefore been taken in Tokyo to fortify key southern islands to both make wartime passage into the Pacific as hazardous as possible and provide distant cover to the ungarrisoned Senkaku Islands. Central to this is the deployment of land-based anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles along the Ryukyu Islands chain. Japanese island-based ground forces with the ability to strike out at nearby PLA air and sea assets would prove to be immensely hazardous to China and would be difficult to fully eradicate with anything short of an outright invasion of the territory they resided in. With support from JMSDF submarines and surface ships, redeployed JASDF aircraft and reinforcements from a more mobile Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) – not to mention the some 50,000 US personnel stationed in Japan and the hundreds of thousands of reinforcements that would be sent to support them – it would be possible to provide an effective barrier to any offensive by PLA forces in the immediate area. Whilst certainly not a solution to the wider Anti-Access/Area Denial challenge presented by China, it would at least act as a brake on any attempt by Beijing to push beyond its defensive bubble.
However, the problem with the Great Wall of Japan approach is that when it is limited to Japanese territory, it suffers from what might be called ‘Maginot Line Syndrome’: there is simply too much scope to outflank such a defensive barrier. The key to ensuring a holistic defence is, therefore, to ally Tokyo with its neighbours in a stance that – if falling somewhat short of a formal mutual defence agreement – would at least make the calculations rather more complex for Beijing. This ‘Greater Wall of Japan’ strategy – also referred to as Archipelagic Defense – would allow for the protection of the southern approaches to the Ryukyu Islands, and the prevention (or at least the disruption) of a PLAN/PLAAF breakout that could threaten Japan’s southern and western SLOC. This line would run along the first island chain – from Japan through to Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and then across west to Vietnam, and – as is the case with Japan – would be backstopped by US forces. All of these countries are in some form of territorial conflict with China and could increase their leverage by being part of an informal security network incorporating a powerful regional actor. Until recently, the great difficulty this presented to Tokyo was that Japan laboured under serious legal restrictions over the type of military activity it was allowed to engage in – with even the export of weapons being effectively prohibited. Only a recent major reorientation of an essentially pacifist approach to national security has made strategically meaningful military regional engagement possible.
Although the roots of the shift in Tokyo’s regional security stance can ultimately be traced back to its difficult experience of the 1991 Gulf War, the political transformation in Japan’s posture can – like its military reorientation – largely be credited to the current Abe government. The formation in 2013 of Japan’s first National Security Council and the 2014 scrapping of the de-facto ban on the exporting of weapons by Japan were both significant steps forward. However, it was September 2015’s passing of a series of bills and amendments reinterpreting Article 9 of the country’s US-sourced constitution – a clause which essentially outlaws the use of force to settle disputes – that marked the culmination of Abe’s reforms. As a result of the (domestically unpopular) changes, Japan is now able to engage in collective self-defence in support of its allies in instances where such an attack presents a “threat to the survival” of Japan.
These changes have been matched by a regional charm offensive by Japan to secure a new consensus regarding the management of China. This process has seen Japan enhance security ties with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia amongst others. The surprise announcement at the end of 2015 that Japan and South Korea had, after seventy years, reached a settlement over the former’s use of ‘comfort women’ during World War Two must also be seen in the context of a need to repair fractured relations between the two countries in order to allow for more pressing issues to be addressed. Further afield, India – sitting astride China’s own SLOC to the Middle East – has also signed defence agreements with Japan.
Ultimately, whilst Japan’s new approach to its regional security role is at an early stage, it could make a major difference – particularly with regards to the supply of military equipment. At the most extreme, it has been suggested that Tokyo could assist Taiwan in fulfilling its ambition to regenerate its submarine fleet. This is probably something of an overreach (despite a similar pitch for the sale of Japanese submarines being made to Australia), but more limited support – notably in the form of the transfer of patrol boats from Japan to Vietnam and the Philippines – is already demonstrating the new possibilities.
Fundamentally, South East Asia is a region that is not currently well-suited to a NATO-like mutual defence pact. However, there are enough regional actors with common concerns centred upon China to provide a solid basis for collaboration. The US will have to remain the ultimate arbiter of local security, but it is now more crucial than ever that the region has a secondary but still powerful centre of political, economic and military gravity. Japan is now taking the opportunity to embrace a role in the security order of South East Asia that it has long denied itself.