China’s aircraft carrier and the Land of the Rising Sun

China’s aircraft carrier and the Land of the Rising Sun

On Tuesday, J BROOKS SPECTOR profiled the possible impact of the Liaoning’s successful launch and recovery of a J-15 fighter – primarily from the perspective of the US and China. This time, he takes a look at this question through the Japanese optic.

China and Japan are a special sort of neighbourly couple. Over the centuries there have been wars and invasions, mostly launched by Japan (although the Mongols and Ming China both attempted to invade Japan). Concurrently, however, important elements of Chinese culture have become major components of Japanese culture for millennia. Along the way, however, beyond all the unpleasantness, in recent decades, the Japanese and Chinese economies have become increasingly intertwined. Hundreds of Japanese factories on Chinese soil make many of the products that have been integral in the great Chinese economic boom. 

Nevertheless, the dispute between the two nations over the nearly microscopic Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; the wider set of Chinese claims to various other small bits of disputed territory; and other muscle flexing by Chinese muscle in the region, have all been pushing the Japanese to embark on upgrading some international military ties and defence readiness, in significant contrast to its previously very modest defence horizon. 

Two important trends now are the beginnings, albeit on a still-modest scale, of Japanese military assistance to other East Asian states, as well as more visible displays of the capabilities the Japan Self Defence Force – the JSDF. For the first time since the end of World War II, this year Japan has approved a $2 million appropriation for military engineering training for Cambodian and East Timorese troops, focusing on disaster relief road construction work. There is also the fact that Japanese naval vessels have begun carrying out joint training exercises with forces from other nations in the region as well undertaking port calls – even to countries that have previously voiced fears about the return of Japanese militarism.

Some analysts and officials are now pointing to the possibility the country may even begin sales of its well-regarded seaplanes and highly rated diesel-powered submarines. These subs seem to be especially well-suited for the shallow seas of much of the region’s waters such as those around the various island groups whose ownership remain in dispute.

While none of these things, all by themselves, are earthshaking, together they seem to be on the cusp of a slow-moving but tangible change in Japanese policy. This is especially striking since the country resisted American pressure to take more responsibility for its overall defence posture for years – because of concerns that would upset relations with the various countries in the region that had been occupied or attacked by Japan during World War II – or that such a move would affect the country’s post-war pacifist constitution and social compact.

Martin Fackler, writing in The New York Times the other day, argued that driving this change in the country’s “shifting national security strategy is its tense dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that is feeding Japanese anxiety that the country’s relative decline – and the financial struggles of its traditional protector, the United States – are leaving Japan increasingly vulnerable.” This circumstance is increasingly different from the situation during the Cold War, Keiro Kitagami, a special advisor to the Japanese prime minister on security issues, argues. “During the Cold war, all Japan had to do was follow the US. With China, it’s different. Japan has to take a stand on its own.” 

None of this means the JSDF and Japan’s security doctrine will morph into a stereotyped, samurai-style posture anytime soon. The country’s post-war pacifism and its national debt will do to keep that in check. Nevertheless, Japanese attitudes are evolving in the wake of China’s burgeoning economic growth, its growing military spending, and its recent, vigorous assertion of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – and similar flyspeck bits of land further south. 

The troubles over Senkaku/Diaoyu became heated in July when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced plans to buy three of the uninhabited islands from a private Japanese owner in order to assert national control over those mostly barren rocks. Then, in September, Chinese patrol boats sailed into the disputed waters to make a sharp point of disagreeing about that claim. Following the announcement of those Japanese plans, many Chinese cities were the site for sometimes-violent anti-Japanese protests in August and September.  

The Japanese assertion of control dates back to a fairly obscure provision of the peace treaty from the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. Japan argues now that China only became interested in these islands in the 1970s, after the possibility of oil reserves were discovered. China has responded that the islands were Chinese territory for centuries and that the Japanese only seized them as a precursor to later invasions of China.

The Japan Times/Kyodo News noted at the time of the purchase that “Japan’s effective nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has opened a Pandora’s box of conflicting sovereignty claims that China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, tried in the late 1970s to keep sealed until wiser generations would be able to handle the issue. Tokyo’s purchase of three of the five islets, all of which have long been under Japanese control, from a private owner for ¥2.05 billion on 11 September 11 sparked a chain reaction changing the nature of Japan’s relations with the other two claimants to the territory, China and Taiwan – and paradoxically weakened Japan’s ability to claim exclusive sovereignty over the islets.” 

Nevertheless, there now also seems to be a growing public sense in Japan that the country should tolerate a more supple interpretation of its so-called peace constitution that would permit coming to the assistance of allies in the event of hostilities. In fact, there has already been a modest movement in that regard. For example, Japan deployed naval refuelling tankers in the Indian Ocean in support of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Publicly, Japanese officials still say their evolving doctrine is not a competition with China. Rather, it is an effort to achieve closer ties with neighbouring nations – although coastguard cooperation could easily be interpreted as an effort to enhance an international ability to withstand Chinese influence in the sea-lanes. Nevertheless, Keio University’s Yoshihide Soeya, one of the country’s leading international relations experts, says about all this, “We want to build our own coalition of the willing in Asia to prevent China from just running over us.”

Interestingly, the country’s deputy minister of defence, Akihisa Nagashima, has added to these sentiments, saying, “We cannot just allow Japan to go into quiet decline.” Views like that are not exactly music to Chinese ears. Leading Chinese general, Ren Haiquan, is reported to have told a recent security conference in Australia that nations should be just a bit wary of cozying up too much to a fascist nation that had attacked Darwin during World War II. 

While Japanese military spending has been shrinking somewhat in the current economic climate, it probably is still the sixth largest such budget in the world. And while it has no avowedly offensive weapons like long-range missiles, nuclear subs or any of those gigantic aircraft carriers, its diesel subs are internationally acknowledged to be top of their class and it also has Aegis missile-equipped cruisers that can bring down incoming ballistic missiles and two helicopter-equipped destroyers that could be reconfigured to host vertical take-off and land fighter jets.

The Japanese navy has also been holding a growing number of joint manoeuvres and exercises with regional partners ranging from Australia to India, and it is moving forward to hammer out a plan to train Vietnamese medical naval personnel, beyond coastguard joint training moving forward as well. And negotiations with the Philippines are reportedly in an advanced stage to sell 10 coastguard cutters to that nation. 

A former Japanese defence minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, put a particularly interesting – even ironic – spin on all this new activity. Kitazawa told an interviewer, “Japan has been insensitive to the security needs of its regional neighbours. We can offer much to increase their peace of mind.” You just have to love that bit of deft, nuanced phrasing. It is going to be very interesting indeed the moment Japanese naval or air forces become “forward deployed” (military speak for “based”) in Southeast Asia or even beyond – for the first time since 1945. DM 

Read more:

Photo: Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force members (L) chat with their counterparts from the U.S. Navy (C) on the MSDF helicopter carrier Hyuga in the Pacific near Minamidaito Island in Okinawa Prefecture, southern Japan, December 9, 2010, during a joint drill with the U.S. military. REUTERS/Kyodo


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