Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

 

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

 

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

 

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

 

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

 

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

 

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

 

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

 

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

 

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

 

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

 

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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Getting Tougher: Vietnam’s Response to China’s South China Sea Bases

Over the last few months, Vietnam has quietly deployed the components of several Extended Range Artillery (EXTRA) rocket systems to five of the islands that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago, according to Western officials. If true, Vietnam likely did so in response to China’s construction of military facilities on the islands that it controls across the region. Vietnam has reportedly dispersed and camouflaged the EXTRA rocket systems, but can arm them within days.[1] While Vietnam currently lacks the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for the systems to target ships at sea, they can put at risk China’s island bases. With a maximum range of 150 km and an accuracy of within 10 meters, they could render inoperable many of China’s newly built airfields.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

Vietnam is not a country known to shrink from a challenge, even when the odds are stacked against it. So far, that has been the case in the South China Sea where the growth of China’s naval might and its determination to assert sovereignty over the region have made the odds of successfully resisting it increasingly steep. Hanoi is doing what it can. It has lavishly spent on new Kilo-class submarines and Gephard-class frigates from Russia. It has accepted Japanese help to build a more robust coast guard. It has even strengthened its military ties with the Philippines, despite its concerns over Manila’s commitment and strength. (Indeed, the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has eased the confrontational approach of his predecessor by offering to open talks with China based on the recent arbitration court ruling.)

Vietnam’s military buildup in the South China Sea may prompt China to take further steps to strengthen its hold on the region. China is not taking any chances. It is already building reinforced concrete shelters to protect aircraft on its island airfields.[2] Earlier this summer, the Chinese air force began to send its fighters and bombers on “combat patrols” over the region.[3] All the while, China has continued its efforts to squeeze out the Philippines and Vietnam from the islands they hold by interdicting the resupply of their garrisons.

Still, the hardening of defenses on Philippine and Vietnamese-held islands is bound to make further Chinese attempts to seize new territory more difficult. The ease with which China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012 is less likely to be repeated. The only remaining island features in the region that now seem vulnerable are those of Malaysia, like James Shoal.

The arms buildup on the islands of the South China Sea may seem alarming. But the mere presence of more arms does not mean that conflict is inevitable. It does mean that if a conflict does occur, it could rapidly spiral. Given the strategic vulnerability of the islands involved, the deployment of offensive weapon systems, like rocket systems, may present commanders with a use-or-lose choice during a crisis. That would indeed be disturbing.

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] Eric Beech, Idrees Ali, and Michael Martina, “Photos suggest China built reinforced hangars on disputed islands: CSIS,” Reuters, Aug. 11, 2016.

[3] Michael Martina, “China conducts ‘combat patrols’ over contested islands,” Reuters, Aug. 6, 2016.

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China’s Encirclement Concerns

For almost two decades, Chinese strategists have worried about what they regard as the geopolitical encirclement of China. At various times, they have attributed that encirclement to the United States, then India, and most recently Japan.[1] No doubt last week’s large-scale naval exercise in the western Pacific did little to dispel their concerns. For the first time warships from India, Japan, and the United States jointly conducted anti-air and anti-submarine drills in the Philippine Sea, an area directly adjacent to the Chinese-claimed waters of the East and South China Seas.

China's Encirclement Concerns
China’s Encirclement Concerns

Events over the past month likely added to China’s concerns. Last Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangkok in part to expand his country’s defense and maritime security cooperation with Thailand. A week earlier, he met with President Barack Obama at the White House, highlighting India’s closer ties with the United States. At a summit in late May, the United States and Japan, along with other Group of Seven countries, openly voiced their concern over China’s maritime actions. Days before the summit, Obama flew to Hanoi where he lifted the long-standing U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam, one of China’s South China Sea antagonists. Then after the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe welcomed a Vietnamese delegation to discuss how they could enhance their military cooperation.

Certainly Chinese concerns over encirclement are not new. During the Cold War, China worried about the Soviet Union pursuing a similar geopolitical strategy. Even earlier, the Chinese Communist Party faced several all too real “encirclement campaigns” during China’s long civil war. Those experiences could have left an imprint may have left their imprint on China’s strategic thinking ever since.

What is clear is that Asia-Pacific countries have begun to prepare for what could be an era of heightened tensions. Such hedging has recently accelerated, as Chinese behavior in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and on its border with India has grown increasingly muscular. The United States has pursued its “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia, which shifted the bulk of American naval might to the Pacific. India and Japan have boosted their diplomatic and economic engagement in Southeast Asia and strengthened their military postures. Other countries have begun to do the same. As Australia’s 2016 defense white paper warned, “competing claims for territory and natural resources [in the region]… could undermine stability.”[2] But does such hedging constitute an encirclement of China?

Imagined Encirclements

In the early 2000s, China agonized over a possible American encirclement on its western border as U.S. forces streamed into Afghanistan and Central Asia. But a decade later, a persistent insurgency had worn down the United States and its allies. U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were closed; America’s once-close relationship with Pakistan became acrimonious; and U.S. forces began their long withdrawal. China’s concern never materialized.

Now Beijing fears an even wider encirclement by the countries along the Asia-Pacific periphery, as they hedge against China’s assertive behavior. But most of them are still in the early stages of building up their strength. Although Australia has launched an ambitious military modernization program, its forces remain small. India’s defense bureaucracy continues to frustrate its military’s modernization and expansion plans. While Japan fields highly capable forces, its fragile economy constrains its military’s ability to grow. Even America’s “pivot” toward Asia may not be as weighty as it sounds, as the Obama administration has trimmed the overall size of the U.S. Navy. Hence, one could argue that China’s concern over an encirclement is, at least for the moment, not wholly warranted.

Undermine the Encirclement

Besides, the countries that China fears will encircle it are not yet a cohesive bunch. Officially non-aligned, India remains skittish about is relationship with the United States. And while Australia and Japan have security treaties with the United States, they do not have strong ties with each other. That was evident when Australia, at the last minute, chose to purchase France’s Scorpene-class submarine over Japan’s Sōryū-class submarine for its next-generation submarine fleet. India’s security relationships with Australia and Japan are equally tenuous. China could use bilateral deals to weaken those relationships and hinder a nascent encirclement from coalescing any further.

Breakout of the Encirclement

But even if China’s fear was to manifest itself, Beijing is already developing the means to break out of it. In late 2013, China turned heads across Asia with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Among the many infrastructure projects it has financed in Southeast Asia are a special economic zone in Cambodia, hydroelectric dams in Laos, and energy and railway projects in Malaysia. While China’s “yuan diplomacy” has not always been successful, it has had an impact. Cambodia and Laos have become reliable advocates for China within ASEAN. Malaysia largely remains on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute, despite a rising number of Chinese infringements of its exclusive economic zone. China’s initiative may prove useful even in the Philippines, which has been a thorn in Beijing’s side. The Philippines’ new president, Rodridgo Duterte, has indicated that he would undertake the bilateral dialogue that China has long sought in exchange for Chinese economic development assistance.

Benefit of the Encirclement

Still, Beijing may have reason to play up its fears of encirclement. Despite its remarkable economic achievements, China faces a host of problems. Today, Chinese leaders must manage their country’s difficult transition from investment-led growth to expansion by private consumption, while dealing with its various debt-fueled bubbles. Even under the best conditions, those challenges are bound to be volatile. So some may see fears of encirclement as a way to rally public sentiment and maintain the “social stability” needed to ensure the longevity of communist rule. In any case, whether the “encirclement of China” is imagined or real, effective or not, one can expect the phrase to remain in Beijing’s lexicon for years to come.

NOTES

[1] Zhang Yunbi, “Tokyo urged not to stir tension in the South China Sea,” China Daily, Mar. 10, 2016, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2016-03/10/content_23806572.htm; “Tokyo’s move to encircle China will lead nowhere,” Global Times, Nov. 23, 2015, www.globaltimes.cn/content/954471.shtml; Hu Qingyun, “US to increase troops stationed in Australia: Deal seen as move to ‘encircle’ China,” Global Times, Aug. 13, 2014, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/875836.shtml; Li Hongmei, “India’s ‘Look East Policy’ means to encircle China,” People’s Daily Online, Oct. 27, 2010, http://en.people.cn/90002/96417/7179404.html; Dai Xu, “U.S. building ‘Asian NATO’ to encircle China,” China.org.cn, Aug. 11, 2010, http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2010-08/11/content_20687335.htm; “China feels encircled,” Economist, Jun. 6, 2002.

[2] Australian Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), p. 57.

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China’s New Missiles and U.S. Alliances in the Asia-Pacific: The Impact of Weakening Extended Deterrence

Two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a nuclear security cooperation summit in Washington. At the same time, China has been busily preparing its next generation of nuclear weapons. It has made steady progress on its new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Last December, China conducted two more tests on the missile, including one that confirmed the DF-41’s ability to be launched from a mobile platform. The DF-41 will be China’s first solid-fueled missile with the range to reach the entire continental United States. The new missile’s range will likely exceed that of China’s older liquid-fueled DF-5 (or CSS-4 according to its NATO designation) ICBM. As a mobile, solid-fueled missile, the DF-41 will be hard to track and able to quickly launch, improving China’s nuclear deterrent. Some believe that China might deploy the DF-41 as early as this year.[1]

China has also been developing a sea-based ICBM, the JL-2. Though the JL-2 has a shorter range than the DF-41, China has built four Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to carry JL-2 missiles closer to their targets. While those submarines are unlikely for the moment to venture far from their base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, American officials confirmed that one of them conducted a patrol late last year. [2] Whether or not JL-2 missiles were on board the submarine is unknown. But if they were, that would make the JL-2 even more elusive than the DF-41, again strengthening China’s nuclear deterrent.

Chinese Ballistic Missile RangesChinese Ballistic Missile Ranges

While China’s nuclear arsenal is small when compared to those of Russia or the United States, there is little doubt as to its enduring importance to Beijing. That much is clear in the special status its nuclear weapons program has held over the last half century. As part of its wide-ranging military reorganization early this year, Beijing elevated its land-based nuclear forces, once a component of the army, to a full-fledged service on par with the army called the Rocket Force.

Many Chinese analysts believe that by creating a more robust nuclear retaliatory capability they can ensure that no country would threaten China with nuclear coercion should a crisis erupt over one of its “core interests,” like Taiwan. As one Chinese official once famously quipped in the 1990s, the United States would never trade “Los Angeles for Taipei.” Hence, China has opposed any proposal that might blunt the effectiveness of its nuclear missiles, even indirect ones, like America’s recent effort to deploy its Theater High-Altitude Air Defense system to protect South Korea and Japan from a possible North Korean missile attack. While Beijing may contend that a state of mutual vulnerability would lead to a more stable security environment between China and the United States, it also complicates a key feature of U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific.

Since the Cold War, U.S. allies, like Australia, Japan, and South Korea, have enjoyed what is called “extended deterrence”—a security guarantee that the United States would be willing to use its nuclear forces to deter aggression against them. But that guarantee is dependent on the credibility of the United States to act. Naturally, the United States is more likely to act if potential adversaries are unable to retaliate against it. Once fully operational, China’s new missiles, which can directly threaten the United States, will complicate the credibility of America’s security guarantee to its allies, weakening extended deterrence.

Already American credibility to act has been questioned over the last half decade, due to the Obama administration’s repeated hesitancy in foreign crises. The reliability of America’s security commitments concerns many of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, as China’s military capabilities continue to grow. That has led some U.S. allies to reevaluate their own military postures. Japan has even taken steps to change its constitution to enable its military to take on a more “normal” role to safeguard Japanese interests in the region.

Australia has begun to do the same. Since the early 2000s, several Australian policymakers have argued for a more self-reliant defense. In its 2009 defense planning document Australia stated “in terms of military power… we must have the capacity to act independently where we have unique strategic interests at stake.”[3] Then, its defense white paper this year, Australia indicated that it could only assume American military dominance in the Asia-Pacific for the next two decades, rather than for the “foreseeable future” as it had in the past. [4] As a result, Australia is pressing ahead with a defense review that will culminate in the purchase of a raft of new military hardware. Australia is now considering the purchase of Japanese submarines for its navy. A few Australian analysts have even begun to openly wonder whether nuclear weapons should in Australia’s future.

Some American policymakers have welcomed the change that weaker extended deterrence has brought. Long-time issues of burden-sharing have eased. They believe that a web of militarily stronger allies can deter China from upsetting Asia’s regional order and do so at a lower cost to the United States. If they are correct, it may usher in a new era of stability. But it also means that the United States will be less able to manage crises in Asia-Pacific, as regional countries will have greater ability to act without it. Should American allies do so, they could draw the United States into a crisis that it would have rather avoided. For those who are concerned about that prospect, it provides an added incentive to pursue ever stronger anti-ballistic missile defenses.

[1]China’s top new long-range missile ‘may be deployed this year’, putting US in striking distance,” South China Morning Post, Mar. 29, 2016; Bill Gertz, “Chinese Defense Ministry Confirms Rail-Mobile ICBM Test,” Washington Free Beacon, Dec. 31, 2015; Bill Gertz, “China Tests New ICBM from Railroad Car,” Washington Free Beacon, Dec. 21, 2015; Keither Bradsheraug, “China Said to Bolster Missile Capabilities,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 2012, p. A5.

[2] Bill Gertz, “Pentagon confirms patrols of Chinese nuclear missile submarines,” Washington Times, Dec. 9, 2015.

[3] Australian Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2009), p. 48.

[4] Australian Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2016), p. 41.

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Chinese Accusations in the East and South China Seas

“Japan always criticizes others, so how can it explain its own actions?” charged the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s spokesman Yang Yujun. He was referring to Japan’s activation of a military radar station on Yonaguni Island earlier this week. Japan’s westernmost island, Yonaguni sits at the edge of the East China Sea, where China and Japan have an ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China). The spokesman argued that it was hypocritical for Japan to characterize China’s deployment of military forces in the South China Sea as “militarization,” while Japan builds a radar station so close to a disputed part of the East China Sea.[1]

East and South China Seas
East and South China Seas

Of course, Chinese accusations of hypocrisy have targeted not only Japan, but also the United States. In recent years, China has taken aim at the United States over its criticism of what it considers China’s militarization of the disputes in the East and South China Seas—from declaring an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea to building artificial islands adorned with military facilities in the South China Sea. Washington has considered such actions as violations of “international norms.” As a result, it resumed freedom of navigation patrols in the western Pacific last year. But China considers Washington’s reaction as hypocritical. How, Chinese officials ask, can the United States criticize China for militarizing the South China Sea, when it uses military forces to conduct its freedom of navigation patrols near Chinese-held islets and has expanded its Asian military alliances, most notably through the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines.

On the other hand, China sees no hypocrisy in its criticism of Japan or the United States. China considers its military actions as wholly within its sovereign rights. After all they have been conducted on what it considers to be its territory, even though many other countries may dispute that claim. In February, China took another step. It deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles and HQ-9 air defense missile systems on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands. While China may view its military buildup in the South China Sea as defensive and proper, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (and increasingly Indonesia) likely see it differently.[2]

Surely the military significance of Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island pales in comparison to that of China’s anti-ship missiles on Woody Island. The radar station can only monitor nearby ships, whereas anti-ship missiles can target them. Moreover, the radar station was built on undisputed Japanese soil; China’s anti-ship missiles are deployed on an island still disputed by Vietnam.

But given the complaints that China has leveled against Japan over its new radar station, one may wonder how China would react if Japan took an equivalent step to that of China’s on Woody Island? (Were Japan to do so, it would have to deploy anti-ship missiles and air defense missile systems on the disputed Senkaku Islands.) China’s recent comments offer a clue. Beijing would likely argue that such an equivalent step by Japan is not equivalent at all, largely because of the impact it would have on China’s strategic situation. Already, China’s ministry of defense intimated that the deployment of its military forces in the South China is less provocative than Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island. Yang contrasted the two situations from China’s perspective: “the South China Sea is a wide and expansive place, unlike Yonaguni’s location at a narrow choke point”—one which China relies on for access into the Pacific Ocean.[3]

Certainly, if Japan were to deploy missile systems (rather than just a radar station) on Yonaguni Island or any of the other Ryukyu Islands, they would complicate China’s strategic situation. But the fact that China’s strategic situation would be complicated is not Japan’s concern. Nor would it diminish the contradiction in China’s own criticism of Japan, given that it already deployed missile systems in the South China Sea. China’s objections would sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

[1] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

[2] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Imagery suggests China has deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 23, 2016; Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China deploys HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 17, 2016.

[3] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

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