Japan Identifies China as Primary Threat

Japan moves forces from defending against a Soviet invasion to monitoring today’s communist superpower.

The Japan helicopter destroyer JS Kurama leads ships during a rehearsal for a fleet review, October 21, 2009
The Japan helicopter destroyer JS Kurama leads ships during a rehearsal for a fleet review, October 21, 2009 (US Navy/Seaman Dominique Pineiro)

Cold War in East Asia? Japan is literally moving forces from defending against a Soviet invasion to monitoring today’s communist superpower. China thinks Tokyo’s attitude is “irresponsible”.

For 65 years, the close to a 150,000 soldiers of Japan’s Northern Army have been gazing across disputed waters from the island of Hokkaidō. A little over eight hundred miles to the northeast, the Russians kept similar watch on the Kuril Islands, the southernmost of which Japan claims as its own. But the Russians won’t be coming anymore. “It is unthinkable that an invasion of Hokkaidō would take place now,” a Ministry of Defense official was quoted as saying in several Japanese media last week. The focus is moving south, to China, which is simultaneously building up its armed forces and becoming more assertive in East Asia.

The cabinet of officially pacifist Japan recently approved the National Defense Programme Guidelines which identify China as the foremost threat to Japanese security. “China is rapidly modernizing its military force and expanding activities in its neighboring waters,” according to the new guidelines. “Together with the lack of transparency on China’s military and security issues, the trend is a concern for the region and the international community.”

China and Japan are among each other’s foremost of trading partners but since China overtook the latter as the world’s second-largest economy this year while Japan remains mired in recession, an economic balance would appear to have translated into increasing political discord.

Several maritime border disputes have frustrated relations for decades. In the East China Sea, which is estimated to contain some seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas and up to one hundred billion barrels of oil, Japan has proposed that an equidistant line from each country should separate their exclusive economic zones but China claims drilling rights virtually up to the coast of Japan.

The two also dispute possession of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands northeast of Taiwan. Japan controlled these islands from 1895 until 1945 when they were transferred to American administration. In 1972, the islands were returned to Japan but both China and Taiwan have claimed them since.

The ownership dispute has implications for maritime boundaries between the three countries involved which became evident in September of this year when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two patrol ships of the Japanese Coast Guard some eight miles northwest of the islands.

The Japanese detained the captain of the fishing trawler which prompted the Chinese to cancel a series of diplomatic meetings. China also cut off its export of rare earth minerals to Japan which are vital to Japanese high tech industries. Beijing denied a connection between the two events but the Japanese subsequently released the trawler captain without charge.

The United States consider the Senkaku Islands Japanese territory and both its secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and secretary of defense, Robert Gates affirmed American support for Japan in the event of a conflict after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had threatened further action against Japan unless the trawler captain were released.

Considering ongoing border disputes in the South China Sea which do not involve Japan but are testament to China’s mounting assertiveness in the region, Japan’s new military guidelines underline a clear shift of focus to counteracting China as a naval power.

Under the new plans, Japan will increase its submarine fleet from sixteen to 22 and modernize its fighter jets. Some four hundred tanks and artillery pieces will be scraped at the same time. Japan will boost its ground, air and naval forces on the far southern Nansei islands that take in Okinawa, a major base for American forces, and are closer to remote flashpoint islands near Taiwan.

Japan also intends to enhance security ties with Australia, India, South Korea and other countries in Southeast Asia to “promote confidence and cooperation with China and Russia.” This risks worsening China’s sense of encirclement which largely inspires its military strategy. From Japan to Taiwan to Indonesia to India, the Chinese face a chain of American allies with armed forces evermore explicitly aimed at them. Even Vietnam prefers the United States as an ally but economically, the entire region remains dependent on China’s growth.

Despite rising tension, East Asia is far from on the brink of war. As Johan Wahlström suggested last year the region’s arms race is not just a contest in military capacity but one of prestige as well. “Aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines are highly visible symbols of a country’s power,” he wrote. “For a region that is finally gaining recognition as a world powerhouse and not just a source of cheap goods, this is crucial.”