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Japan Looks South: China’s Rise Drives New Strategy

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


WASHINGTON: You’d expect the top admiral in the Japan Self-Defense Force to talk about defending Japan. But Adm. Tomohisa Takei surprised me on his latest visit to Washington — his third in 10 months — with a speech that clearly demonstrates how Japan is broadening its strategic perspective. The new view from Tokyo takes in the Indian Ocean and, especially, the disputed South China Sea. Driving this change, of course, is an alarmingly assertive China.

To quote analyst Andrew Krepinevich, who visited Japanese commanders earlier this year, “the combination of rising threats, declining confidence in the US, and the reinterpretation of Article 9 are both compelling and enabling the Japanese to think more broadly and strategically about their security.”

What is striking about the new Japanese approach? Takei made no mention of North Korea, which has test-fired missiles over Japan, or the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China, or a resurgent Russia, Japan’s neighbor to the north. In his remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the admiral didn’t even talk much about “the Pacific,” preferring the more expansive “Indo-Pacific” (at least 14 times, by my count).

Instead of discussing northeast Asia, Takei warned that continued chaos in Somalia and new instability in Yemen keep piracy alive in the Gulf of Aden, where the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force provides escort ships and patrol aircraft. And, after some thinly veiled remarks about “a certain country” causing “anxiety and distrust” by its actions in the South China Sea, Takei came right out and said the C-word with an un-Japanese directness:

“China is making rapid progress in its land reclamation at coral reefs of the Spratly Islands in spite of [neighboring] countries’ opposition,” Takei said. If these pseudo-islands are used as military bases, he went on, “the entire South China Sea can be covered by China’s sphere of military influence.”

“The South China Sea is the economic center of gravity of the Indo-Pacific,” Takei said. “Sea lanes stretch to and from all directions, [and] it will be vitally important that the South China Sea is ‘free and open waters’ all the time.”

Recognizing that fact, let alone making it central to Japanese strategy, is a major step for the island nation. For most of its modern history, Japan has stuck with a strict interpretation of Article 9, the part of its constitution that renounces war. Utterly humbled after the enormous destruction wrought by the two nuclear weapons dropped on Japan, the Japan Self-Defense Force has focused on self-defense in the narrowest sense, especially protecting the northern island of Hokkaido against a Soviet ground invasion. But the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is pushing controversial legislation that would reinterpret Article 9 to allow “collective self-defense” — that is, working with other countries against regional threats.

“Right now the collective self-defense piece is being caught up in a political battle,” said Nicholas Szechenyi, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The current debate domestically around collective self defense is very polarized,” he said. “Much of the opposition led by the DPJ is trying to stop Abe, arguing this is going to drag Japan into wars [or even] start a draft.”

“But in my view…it’s about information sharing,” Szechenyi said. The new law would allow the Japanese military to coordinate much more closely with others, not just the US. In particular, he said, it would allow Japan, the US, and anxious Southeast Asian nations to create “a common operational picture” of what the notoriously opaque Chinese are up to in the South China Sea.

There have even been proposals that Japanese patrol craft fly surveillance missions over the South China Sea. No less a figure than the commander of the US 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, said the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force could serve a “stabilizing function” in the region.

China, however, is bitterly opposed to any Japanese actions. “The Chinese several months ago said something to the effect of, ‘look, we may be willing to live with an American naval presence in the South China Sea, but the Japanese have no business here,'” said Dean Cheng, China scholar at Heritage. “[That’s] a challenge to the whole concept of freedom of navigation… It doesn’t surprise me that the JMSDF is saying, ‘oh, no you did not go there.'”

In fact, Japan has been building military relationships in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean for some years, under prime ministers of both parties. Japan signed a formal defense cooperation agreement with Australia in 2007 and one with India in 2008. (“It was huge and little remarked upon,” Cheng said of the India deal). The Japanese now conduct military exercises with both countries. In his remarks, Adm. Takei proposed formally linking the multinational Western Pacific Naval Symposium with its counterpart, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

Takei also emphasized the new possibilities for collaboration now that Japan no longer effectively bans arms exports. For example, Japan is giving patrol ships to both the Philippines and Vietnam, both nations on the frontline of Chinese territorial claims.

What about Japan’s own forces? “The JSDF today is pretty darn capable,” said Cheng. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in particular, he said is “bigger and arguably more capable than the Royal Navy, other than in the area of ballistic missile submarines.” (Britain has nuclear weapons; Japan, for understandable reasons, does not).

Adm. Takei put it more forcefully: “Now the JMSDF has high-end capability both in quality and in quantity second only to the US Navy,” he said.

That hardly means Japan can do it without us. “The US’s presence is required now and in the future for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said. What kind of presence — and how to pay for it — is the debate that Washington has to have.

What do you think?