Never before in the history of East Asia, has there been an absence of a power-competition, i.e., when a rising power threatened to challenge the established and sole recognised power in the region.
Japan’s ascent as the dominant military power during the pre-War years when Japan emerged as a major colonial power in Asia coincided with China’s eclipse from its pre-eminence position of the Middle Kingdom period. The world took note of Japan with awe as a dwarf that crushed two giants – China and Russia. After WWII, Japan emerged as a powerful economic powerhouse within decades from its defeat. At this time China again slumped into economic abyss during its flawed Great Leap forward policy and Cultural Revolution. After China opened up its economy with market reforms and started registering astounding double-digit economic growth for the past four decades, its aspiration to regain its old glory has gained currency in China and abroad.
The equation with Japan is currently being challenged with China flexing its military and economic muscles to assert its claim to be the dominant power of the region. The Chinese aspiration this time is to re-emerge not only as the sole regional but also as a global power. This is demonstrated in its assertive behaviour in the East- and South China Seas. China is also raking up historical wounds to reassert its claims. Even with India, it is unwilling to resolve the boundary disputes and started to flex its military muscles.
Recent developments in Japan with a nationalistic Prime Minister in office signals that Japan will not comply to this new situation. Japan’s “National Security Strategy,” “National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2014 and Beyond,” and “Mid-term Defense Program (FY 2015-2019)” were approved by their Security Council and Cabinet on 17 December 2013. This signals that Japan is prepared to meet China’s new challenge.
For Japan, the security environment in its periphery creates an element of volatility and this is represented by North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and missile development. The China-North Korea nexus indicates nothing good for regional peace and stability, and symptoms of potential instability in North Korea send out disturbing signals in the neighbourhood. The strategic vulnerability of potential adversaries gain further significance with transnational threats grounded on technological progress including international terrorism and cyber-attacks.
Reshaping Japan’s Security StrategyThe US “rebalance” strategy in Asia or “Asia pivot,” as it is popularly called, means that even powerful countries in the world need allies to maintain world peace. Even when China seems determined to rewrite laws governing world peace and sets its own code of conduct, it needs allies. It has allies in Pakistan and North Korea and seems to have lost Myanmar after the latter opted for market reforms. But can a nation maintain its own peace and security alone without outside support?
In the case of Japan, its Self Defense Forces (JSDF), constricted as it is by its own peace constitution but compelled to reinterpret itself in the way that it serves its national interests, cannot remain silent and rely on US protection. Even within Japan, there is a sizable public opinion that does not endorse perpetual subservience to the US and oppose Japan’s support financially for the latter stationing military bases to protect Japan. The argument goes that why Japanese citizens’ tax payer money should be spent on a venture that lacks public approval. The relocation of American bases in Okinawa remains a burning issue and is unlikely to go away so soon.
So how does Japan respond and prepare itself to this changing situation?
While the JSDF has contributed to its maximum possible extent to maintain and restore international peace and security, i.e., UN peacekeeping operations, the Japanese government is crafting a nuanced security doctrine in establishing the National Security Council (NSC), adopting the National Security Strategy (NSS), and the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) to meet the country’s security challenges (perceived threats) coming from its neighbours. These measures are based on the belief that Japan, as a “proactive contributor to peace,” needs to contribute more actively to the peace and stability of the region, while at the same time strengthening its ties with its ally, the US.
As regards the NSC, it was established on 4 December 2013 with the aim of establishing a forum that will undertake strategic discussions under the PM on a regular basis and on various national security issues, while exercising a strong political leadership. The Cabinet adopted the NSS on 17 December 2013, setting the basic orientation of diplomatic and defence policies related to national security. The NSS represents the content of the policy of “proactive contribution to peace” in a concrete manner and promotes better understanding of Japan’s national security policy. The NDPG and the Mid-Term Defense Program, based on the NSS, were also announced on 17 December 2013. Earlier, the MoD had published the Defense Posture Review Interim Report on 26 July 2013.
While taking cognisance of the severity of the security environment around Japan and recognising that the country should be ready for an appropriate response should the situation deteriorate, the government was prepared to examine and consider issues related to the constitution, including the issue of collective self-defence, based on the views of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security.
Japan has adopted the Three Principles on Arms Exports and their related policy guidelines and this needs to be reviewed based on the changed situation. While the government has dealt with arms exports in a careful manner so far, in December 2012, it established the Guidelines for Overseas Transfer of Defense Equipment, based on the need to engage more proactively and effectively in peace contribution and international cooperation.
When the JSDF withdrew from the Haiti UN Peacekeeping Operation, part of the materiel and equipment of the Japanese Engineer Group engaged was given to Haiti, as based on the above mentioned guidelines. Also, as an international joint development and production project ,which serves to the security of Japan, the “Agreement between the Government of the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Concerning the Transfer of Arms and Military Technologies Necessary to Implement Joint Research, Development and Production of Defence Equipment and Other Related Items” was concluded in July 2013, and a chemical and biological protection technology cooperative research project is underway between Japan and the UK. In the NSS, it is stated that while giving due considerations to the roles that the Three Principles on Arms Exports and their related policy guidelines have played so far, “the Government of Japan will set out clear principles on the overseas transfer of arms and military technologies.”
China’s ReactionChina reacted sharply against Japan’s plan to enhance military spending and arms exports and said that these measures will raise tensions in the region. Chinese MoD spokesperson Geng Yansheng said that Japan was playing up the “China’s military threat” and using this as an alibi for its own military expansion. In particular, China is worried that Japan will have more friends because of its arms exports deals, which will be unfavourable to China’s interests. Japan wants to raise defence spending by 5% over the next five years to purchase its first surveillance drones, more jet fighters, and naval destroyers, and set up an amphibious unit similar to the USMC.
Though the Shinzo Abe government has committed to spend $240 billion on the military in five years from 2014 onwards, China suspects that Tokyo will spend more in the future.
China has missed the point that the Japanese move came after China established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps the existing Japanese ADIZ and covers the disputed Diaoyu islands. China is not deterred, though, as its defence spokesman remarked: “We urge Japan to make deep introspection on its history, honour its commitment to peaceful development and try to improve its relations with neighbours to play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability.”
Geng Yansheng accused Japan’s so-called “proactive pacifism” is just a cover to beef up military alliances with other countries to create a front against China. It seems as if China is paranoid of any move by Japan and always sees itself as an adversary. This could be because the shadow of history continues to haunt China. It was precisely because of such an attitude that led to the demise of the quadrilateral initiative made by Shinzo Abe in his first term; China saw this initiative as anti-Chinese. China blissfully overlooks the ground reality that its recent flexing of military muscle is causing considerable disquiet in the entire Asia-Pacific region, where it is seen as China’s long term goal of military expansion.
China has been selling the idea that the US will abandon Japan from its treaty obligation at the appropriate time, as the US will be unwilling to jeopardize its economic relationship with China, should a crisis suddenly break out between Japan and China. To an outside observer, this is China’s wishful thinking. If the recent rebalancing strategy of the US is understood in correct perspective, it would be foolhardy for China to believe that the US would abandon Japan. The Japan-US security treaty remains and would continue to remain as the lynchpin of America’s security strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region for quite some time.
Japan’s New Security StrategyJapan’s new security strategy is putting the acceptance of Japanese peoples’ pacifist constitution for the past six decades to a test. While being careful not to get embroiled in any overseas military entanglements, its choice for a proactive national security strategy would go well for Japan, for Asia and serve the US interests as well.
Notwithstanding, PM Shinzo Abe’s perceived nationalistic foreign policy posture, the hanging threat of North Korea’s weapon programme simply cannot be overlooked. Even though Yukio Hatoyama, during his tenure, tried to seek distance from Washington by floating the idea of an Asians-only “East Asian Community,” the Chinese and North Korean factors have pushed the Abe administration to awake from the country’s long slumber.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the NSS accuses China of “attempts to change the status quo by coercion”, intruding “into Japan’s territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku islands,” and “unduly (infringing) the freedom of over flight above the high seas.” There have been cases of Chinese Navy regularly transiting the Japanese islands to the Pacific Ocean and in the fiscal year ending March 2013, Japan scrambled fighter jets 306 times in response to Chinese aircraft. In the East China Sea, Chinese and Japanese maritime forces have often been at odds. This is because China seems determined to alter Japan’s administrative control over the disputed Senkaku islands. It was because of this intention, China declared the ADIZ over much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, claiming that civilian and military aircraft within the ADIZ are required to file flight plans with China and are subject to Chinese directions. There are some analysts who see China’s ADIZ plan as a result of “provocations” from Japan when the Japanese government purchased three of the islands in 2012 and that this was the starting point for the latest round of tension.
China’s new President Xi Jinping may be seen as a nationalist, but the truth is that China is concerned about its maritime commerce and would not be exposed to the any vulnerability, putting its international trade at risk. Beijing realises that Chinese submarines pass through the Miyoko Strait regularly. For China, lack of control over the waterways through which its exports, natural resource imports, and naval vessels must pass, would mean it is vulnerable. The ADIZ is aimed towards this goal.
To its credit, Japan is paving the way for a new US maritime strategy that can take advantage of Chinese vulnerabilities. While the new national security strategy discusses North Korea, terrorism, the Middle Eas,t and the global commons, Japan’s defence reforms are focused largely on securing the Ryukyu island chain, and the Senkakus in particular, thus continuing the country’s rebalance of security emphasis and resources from Russia in the north to China in the west (now, that’s a real rebalance).
And although Tokyo is driven by concerns for the security of its own territory, it is also taking advantage of the geographical edge it hold vis-à-vis China. Japan is already an impressive naval power with a very strong submarine and destroyer fleet. In accordance with its new plans, it will add a number of important new capabilities, including first-class maritime air interdiction, stealthy strike, rapid reaction forces, and C4ISR. All of these capabilities will be useful in defending Japan’s south-western islands, but just as important, they will also allow the JSDF to operate more effectively in an international coalition. Washington can multiply the effect of Tokyo’s new defence policy with a real defence strategy of its own. US forces could build facilities, field new capabilities, and help upgrade allied forces in a region stretching from Indonesia through the Philippines and Taiwan and up to Japan that can together bottle up the Chinese Navy. Doing so would force Beijing to spend heavily on defences, such as anti-submarine warfare capabilities of its own. The US could also lead an effort to build a coalition maritime domain awareness centre that each country in the first island chain can plug into. Taken together, these steps could complement the robust presence of American and allied undersea, mining, and surface-warfare forces, all in the service of causing China to think twice about sticking to its current coercive strategy. Japan has started the process of regaining the initiative from China. Washington now has a chance to lead its allies in a strategy that forces China to play defence. Will it?