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@ fhbund-muc.de.