The lim­its of Ja­pan’s mil­i­tary strength


Ja­panese se­cu­rity pol­icy has hit a dead end. Tokyo crit­i­cizes that since 2010, il­le­gal in­cur­sions into the ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters around the Senkaku Is­lands (known as Diaoyu in China and Diaoyu­tai in Tai­wan) by Chi­nese gov­ern­ment ships have in­creased. Fur­ther, it de­plores that Chi­nese fighter air­craft have en­tered airspace sur­round­ing Ja­pan with­out per­mis­sion. While Tokyo in­sists that it is in the right legally, Bei­jing is con­tin­u­ously ex­pand­ing its ca­pa­bil­ity to project mil­i­tary power in the re­gion. How or whether Ja­pan can avert China’s ex­ten­sion of its sphere of in­flu­ence in the East China Sea is un­clear.

The dis­puted is­lands are only 170 kilo­me­ters north­east of Tai­wan. They are part of Ja­pan’s sparsely pop­u­lated south, the Ryukyu is­lands, a 1,200 kilo­me­ter­long is­land chain. De­fend­ing this area is dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially be­cause of lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges. More­over, the Ja­panese Self-De­fense Forces’ (SDF) pres­ence in the re­gion has tra­di­tion­ally been small, mainly for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons: Dur­ing the Cold War, the SDF were more fo­cused on the north, fear­ing a Soviet attack against Hokkaido.

For many years, Tokyo has been aware of this sit­u­a­tion. Then- Prime Min­is­ter Ju­nichiro Koizumi called for a “de­fense force struc­ture to re­spond ef­fec­tively to the in­va­sion of Ja­pan’s off­shore is­lands” in the De­cem­ber 2004 Na­tional De­fense Pro­gram Guide­lines ( NDPG). Un­der Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, se­cu­rity chal­lenges have been ad­dressed more di­rectly. The De­cem­ber 2013 NDPG openly threaten China: “... should any re­mote is­lands be in­vaded, Ja­pan will re­cap­ture them.”

To this end, the West­ern Army In­fantry Reg­i­ment (WAIR) was set up in 2002. It is based in Sasebo (Na­gasaki Pre­fec­ture) and is ap­prox­i­mately 700 sol­diers strong. It is mod­eled on the U.S. Marine Corps, trains for am­phibi­ous war­fare, and would be the spear­head of a coun­ter­at­tack in a cri­sis. Un­til fis­cal year 2018, it is planned to aug­ment th­ese forces by es­tab­lish­ing the Am­phibi­ous Rapid Deploy- ment Brigade ( ten­ta­tive name) which is ex­pected to con­sist of about 3,000 sol­diers.

In ad­di­tion, about 20 F-15J fighters are based at Naha, the cap­i­tal of Ok­i­nawa. They scram­ble, some­times al­most daily, against Chi­nese air­craft in the airspace above the East China Sea. Sup­pos­edly, 20 more F-15Js will be added by 2016. P-3C Orion sur­veil­lance air­craft of the Fleet Air Wing Five also carry out daily pa­trols in the dis­puted area.

Ja­pan wants to im­prove the de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the armed forces sta­tioned on the south­west­ern flank by the procur­ing of V-22 Osprey tiltro­tor air­craft, Global Hawk drones and am­phibi­ous as­sault ve­hi­cles. Also, 150 sol­diers of the Ground Self-De­fense Forces (GSDF) will be de­ployed to the south­ern­most is­land of the Ryukyus, Yon­a­guni. By the end of fis­cal year 2016, they are to op­er­ate a sur­veil­lance sta­tion there. Yon­a­guni is only 110 kilo­me­ters from Tai­wan and 150 kilo­me­ters from the Diaoyu­tais. In per­spec­tive, Ja­pan’s Min­istry of De­fense wants to sta­tion sev­eral hun­dred sol­diers of the GSDF on Amami-Oshima, Miyako and Ishi­gaki is­lands. Un­der dis­cus­sion is the de­ploy­ment of sur­face-to-air and sur­face-to-ship mis­siles on at least one of th­ese is­lands.

Nev­er­the­less, this arms buildup will not suf­fice to bal­ance Chi­nese forces in the East China Sea. Ac­cord­ing to Pen­tagon es­ti­mates, 330 op­er­a­tional com­bat air­craft of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force are within range of Tai­wan (as of 2014). Pre­sum­ably half of them could also be used against Ja­pan’s south­west­ern flank. Fur­ther­more, the Sec­ond Ar­tillery Corps, the PLA’s mis­sile force, could launch at­tacks against tar­gets any­where in Ja­pan. For ex­am­ple, DF-21 mis­siles could eas­ily de­stroy Naha Air Base.

In ad­di­tion, me­dia re­ports in­di­cate that China and Rus­sia in 2014 signed an agree­ment for the de­liv­ery of S-400 sur­face-toair mis­siles. This mis­sile de­fense sys­tem could also be used against fighter air­craft. Re­port­edly, the S-400’s reach is up to 400 kilo- me­ters. Should the sys­tem ever be de­ployed, all of the Senkaku Is­lands would be cov­ered from Fu­jian prov­ince, fur­ther lim­it­ing Abe’s room for ma­neu­ver in the East China Sea.

Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances, the SDF face two prob­lems. First, the WAIR’s area of re­spon­si­bil­ity is too large to de­ter an en­emy ef­fec­tively or even to fight against him. Sec­ond, Ja­pan will not be able to en­sure air su­pe­ri­or­ity in the East China Sea with­out U.S. help. China out­num­bers Ja­pan in com­bat-ca­pa­ble fighter air­craft in the dis­puted area. Also, the dis­tance be­tween Naha Air Base and the Diaoyu­tais is 420 kilo­me­ters — a min­i­mum of 20 min­utes’ flight time for an F-15J. By the time SDF re­in­force­ments ar­rive in the area, China will al­ready have oc­cu­pied in­di­vid­ual is­lands and will be able to de­fend them.

Against Bei­jing’s grow­ing mil­i­tary might, Tokyo’s fu­ture does not look bright. In 2014, China’s de­fense bud­get amounted to US$129 bil­lion. Ja­pan, in con­trast, could only ear­mark US$47.7 bil­lion (of­fi­cial fig­ures, The Mil­i­tary Bal­ance 2015). This sit­u­a­tion has been con­tin­u­ing since 2007, when Bei­jing first spent more money on its armed forces than Tokyo.

At first sight, it is as­ton­ish­ing that Ja­pan does not do more to counter the Chi­nese mil­i­tary buildup. Randall L. Sch­weller, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sciences at the Ohio State Uni­ver­sity, de­scribes this as “un­der­bal­anc­ing,” whereby a state would have to do more to re­spond to a clear threat by way of in­ter­nal bal­anc­ing, i.e. im­prov­ing its ar­ma­ment, yet fails to do so.

The the­ory of­fers var­i­ous ex­pla­na­tions for un­der­bal­anc­ing in the East China Sea. Ja­pan does not arm it­self more against China be­cause it lacks the eco­nomic where­withal; it is highly in­debted to the tune of 245 per­cent of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (as of 2014, In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund). If the gov­ern­ment does not want to lose do­mes­tic sup­port, it has to bal­ance aus­ter­ity mea­sures, wel­fare pro­grams and eco­nomic re­forms. This ex­plains why the de­fense bud­get has only ex­panded very slowly since 2013.

Ac­cord­ing to the the­ory, un­der­bal­anc­ing is more pro­nounced when there is no con­sen­sus be­tween gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety on key se­cu­rity pol­icy is­sues. That, too, is the case in Ja­pan. Ac­cord­ing to a Jan­uary 2015 sur­vey, only 29.9 per­cent of Ja­panese sup­port boost­ing the SDF’s de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties. In an April 2014 poll, 62 per­cent of re­spon­dents spoke out against a re­vi­sion of Ar­ti­cle 9 of the con­sti­tu­tion. Con­se­quently, in an Au­gust 2014 poll, 60.2 per­cent of Ja­panese op­posed ex­er­cis­ing the right of col­lec­tive self-de­fense, i.e. fight­ing to­gether with U.S. forces.

How­ever, polls from April/May 2014 il­lus­trate that the public’s po­si­tion on se­cu­rity pol­icy is in­con­sis­tent. Ninety-one per­cent said they have a some­what un­fa­vor­able or very un­fa­vor­able opin­ion of China. Eighty-five per­cent are con­cerned that the ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute in the East China Sea could lead to mil­i­tary con­flict. Nev­er­the­less, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity is un­will­ing to spend more money on de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties in or­der to bet­ter pro­tect Nip­pon’s south­west­ern is­lands.

Fol­low­ing Sch­weller, states that are too weak for in­ter­nal bal­anc­ing have to rely on al­liances (i.e. ex­ter­nal bal­anc­ing) for their sur­vival. There­fore, Ja­pan em­ploys a strat­egy of band­wag­o­ning with the United States. And it does so suc­cess­fully: Wash­ing­ton has con­firmed many times that the U.S.-Ja­pan se­cu­rity treaty of 1960 ap­plies to the Senkaku Is­lands (Diaoyu­tais). In April 2014, even Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­it­er­ated this po­si­tion in Tokyo. No doubt, the U.S. se­cu­rity guar­an­tee is Ja­pan’s best op­tion of de­ter­ring China in the East China Sea. To this end, U.S. and Ja­panese sol­diers are en­gaged in regular ex­er­cises like Dawn Blitz or Iron Fist, in which they train re­cap­tur­ing lost off­shore is­lands.

Against this back­drop, Abe will not be able to bet­ter pro­tect Ja­pan’s south­west­ern flank solely with SDF units in the near fu­ture. Only a mil­i­tary in­ci­dent and the en­su­ing ral­ly­ing around the flag could change this sit­u­a­tion. Un­til then, war will re­main an ab­stract cat­e­gory for the Ja­panese pop­u­la­tion, de­spite all the con­flicts of to­day. The same phe­nom­e­non is ev­i­dent in other democ­ra­cies, e.g. in Ger­many. It ap­pears to be a con­se­quence of long times of peace and be­ing ac­cus­tomed to U.S. se­cu­rity guar­an­tees. Un­der­bal­anc­ing is the log­i­cal con­se­quence of this.

For Tokyo, the de­pen­dency on Wash­ing­ton in even the small­est cri­sis could very well pose prob­lems. This is in­di­cated in the in­terim re­port on the re­vi­sion of the guide­lines for U.S.-Ja­pan de­fense co­op­er­a­tion from 1997. Pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 2014, it states: “In case of an armed attack against Ja­pan, Ja­pan will have pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­pel the attack. The United States will pro­vide sup­port, in­clud­ing strike op­er­a­tions as ap­pro­pri­ate.” Ac­cord­ingly, the SDF will at first prob­a­bly be on their own in small-scale mil­i­tary in­ci­dents around the Diaoyu­tais. The ques­tion is: are the Ja­panese armed forces ready for this? Dr. Martin Wa­gener is a Pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sciences/In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at the Fed­eral Uni­ver­sity of Ap­plied Ad­min­is­tra­tive Sciences in Bruehl and Mu­nich (Ger­many). In spring 2015, he was a Vis­it­ing Re­search Fel­low at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions (Na­tional Chengchi Uni­ver­sity). He can be reached at martin.wa­gener@ fh­

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