Dragon, Eagle, and Rising Sun

June 1, 2005

When an unidentified submarine was detected in the waters off Japan last November, P-3C maritime patrol aircraft from the Japanese self-defense forces immediately began shadowing the intruder.

The escort was hardly benign. Japan’s force of 80 P-3C aircraft boasts powerful radars and antiship and antisubmarine weapons, including lethal Harpoon missiles. With a range of more than 1,000 miles and flying from air bases stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, the P-3s would allow Japan to set up a defensive perimeter out into the South China Sea, over the Spratly Islands, and even south of the Philippines.

The undersea intruder turned out to be a nuclear-powered Chinese submarine. Though the incident rapidly receded from the front pages, it affirmed the renewal of a rivalry whose impact could be felt far beyond Japan and China.

At stake: primacy in the world’s most dynamic economic region and the stability of East Asia in the 21st century.

Fueled by superheated economic expansion, the mainland communist giant has launched an aggressive military modernization program and is testing the limits of its military reach. In 2004, for instance, Chinese surveillance and reconnaissance vessels conducted more than 30 illegal incursions into Japanese territorial waters.

Shaken—and Stirred

The jolt provided by Chinese actions—amplified by the emergence of a belligerent and possibly nuclear-armed regime in North Korea—has shaken Japan out of its Cold War-era strategic slumber. Tokyo has responded by modernizing its own military, upgrading its security alliance with Washington, and drastically reducing its post-World War II pacifism.

Any lingering doubts about a rekindled rivalry between China and Japan were dispelled by recent testy diplomacy between the two economic powerhouses. Japan demanded and received an apology, for instance, for the Chinese submarine’s incursion. Next came a joint statement by top US and Japanese officials in February stating that both wanted to “encourage” the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, marking the first time the United States and Japan had mentioned Taiwan in a formal statement.

Beijing erupted with howls of protest over what it termed Japan’s meddling in internal Chinese affairs, and then responded by passing a law in March legally binding China to “nonpeaceful means” should Taiwan declare or move toward independence.

There are even reports that China, flexing its growing economic and military muscle, has begun demanding that Australia end or modify its 50-year-old alliance with the United States.

When asked about the controversial proclamation of an official interest in the future of Taiwan—which China considers a “renegade province”—Japanese officials are unapologetic.

“We’re more than just concerned [about China], but we have to be careful,” Ryozo Kato, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. In 1996, he noted, when China fired missiles to intimidate Taiwan on the eve of elections, they very nearly fell in Japanese territorial waters.

He went on, “Both the United States and Japan have long shared a clear recognition that the security of Taiwan is one of the most important contributors to the security of Japan. That goes back to our long sea-lanes to the Middle East, where we get nearly 90 percent of our energy. If a hostile regime were ever created on Taiwan, for instance, it would represent a potential choke point for our oil supplies that would be very troubling in terms of Japan’s security.”

In the recent past, Japan’s general approach to foreign policy has been to grant generous aid and preferential loans to help integrate China into the global economic system and to give Beijing a vested interest in regional stability. “Our line of thinking was that there were a variety of different scenarios in terms of how China develops,” said Kato. “We felt all along that the best of those scenarios was for China to consider economic development as its top priority. This will ensure that China develops international dependence, which also requires stability. So our policy remains encouraging China to give top priority to its economic development. We think that’s best not only for China but also for the international community.”

As a result of that common US-Japanese strategy, however, China’s economy has registered nearly double-digit annual growth for decades, with no end in sight.

Now that Beijing is clearly determined to funnel huge amounts of that economic bounty into modernizing its military, expanding its power projection capabilities, and threatening Taiwan with missile deployments opposite the Taiwan Strait, Japan is clearly recalculating its strategy. In March, for instance, Tokyo informed China that it would begin cutting back its low-interest loans this year, with a goal of phasing them out entirely by 2008.

Sobering Decade

Japan was first awakened to the approach of new danger during the 1990s, first by China’s overt intimidation of Taiwan in 1996 and then by North Korea’s launching in 1998 of a three-stage Taepo Dong 1 missile that flew over Japan’s main island of Honshu. During the 1990s, Japanese officials also increasingly worried that the United States’ outreach to China as a “strategic partner” represented a downgrading of the US-Japanese alliance.

Thus Tokyo began laying the groundwork for a far more assertive and muscular strategic posture that was more reflective of its vast wealth and influence as the world’s second-largest economy.

To build support for such a strategic shift at home, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began appealing overtly to Japanese nationalism. That was the underlying message behind the reintroduction of the “Rising Sun” flag and Koizumi’s controversial annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead (including over a thousand convicted World War II war criminals).

Those appeals are designed to counter deep strains of pacifism inculcated into the Japanese populace and, indeed, made a formal part of the postwar Japanese constitution. The move is summarized by Koizumi’s publicly expressed desire to see Japan finally become a “normal country.”

That return to normality has proved controversial in the region and domestically, however, given Japan’s reckless and aggressive militarism in the first half of the 20th century. As Alan Dupont points out in the spring 2005 National Interest, at that time, a Japanese military with a long martial tradition and steeped in samurai ethos destroyed Russia’s Baltic Fleet, colonized Korea, invaded China, subjugated Southeast Asia, and attacked the United States. The end result of this international lawlessness was Japan’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of the United States, punctuated by the atomic bomb attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Koizumi’s government has persistently chipped away at constitutional and administrative constraints on the active use of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Numerous bills passed by the Japanese Diet in recent years have relaxed restrictions on the deployment of the JSDF (albeit in noncombat roles), for instance, and focused on improved military preparedness.

Will Article 9 Go

Many political observers in Japan think it is likely that the Article 9 renunciation of war contained in the Japanese constitution will be rewritten to recognize the existence and expanding role of the self-defense forces. Significantly, a recent poll by the authoritative Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that a majority of Japanese people and lawmakers now favor a revision of the constitution to abandon the prohibition on collective self-defense.

The Japanese government has moved aggressively to put the new laws and relaxed restrictions to the test. During the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, for instance, the US flotilla was supported by Japanese supply ships escorted by Japanese destroyers. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) also flew a number of transport missions to Diego Garcia and Guam in support of Enduring Freedom. That help came in stark contrast to 1994, when Japan refused to support US forces engaged in a tense showdown with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

In an even more controversial move, Koizumi in early 2004 dispatched 600 ground troops to Iraq to aid reconstruction following passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1511, which authorized a multinational peacekeeping deployment.

“That was a difficult decision for the Japanese government, but it is in Japan’s vital strategic interest to have stability in the Middle East,” said Kato. “Even beyond our relations with the United States, it’s important for Japan to do what is necessary to contribute to the stability of the region. So we have taken that decision on troops because it is in our interest.”

The JSDF troops in Iraq are engaged in noncombat reconstruction activities. Even so, Kato concedes, the very act of sending Japanese troops so far from the homeland amounted to a crossing of the Rubicon in the Japanese psyche.

“That deployment did cross some boundary lines,” he said, “which is why we were so careful in stipulating what tasks our forces would undertake in Iraq, which are mostly concerned with delivering medical supplies and water purification. And as you know, Japan is also very committed to the United Nations, so whenever we deploy troops it’s important to us that such missions are authorized by the United Nations.”

The cornerstone of Japan’s new strategic posture, however, has been to tighten and strengthen its alliance with the United States, a move that includes closer integration of US and JSDF military forces. The Japanese government has closely linked its National Defense Program Outline and a bilateral US-Japanese Defense Policy Review Initiative with the Pentagon’s own Global Posture Review. A major focus of those consultations has been the growing military reach of China.

“Pay Attention”

Japan’s December 2004 National Defense Program Outline thus asserted that “China … is attempting to expand its sphere of maritime activity while driving the modernization of its nuclear and missile forces as well as naval and air forces. Japan needs to pay attention to these trends.”

One who has been observing Japan’s actions is Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. The upshot of the recent US-Japan consultations, Blumenthal maintained in a recent issue of AEI’s “Asian Outlook,” is that Japan “will be able to work with the United States in the future to maintain control of vital sea lines of communication, particularly in the event of a conflict involving maritime access to the Middle East.”

He went on, “As China arms the Iranian regime with antiship missiles and expands its naval presence into the Indian Ocean, this is an area that will have greater importance in the future.”

Indeed, Japanese officials concede that Japan’s position as an island nation heavily dependent on Middle East oil is never far from their strategic calculations or consultations.

“What most stands out when you consider Japan’s particular position is our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and very long sea lines between Japan and the region that must cross the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea,” said Kato. “Because those vital sea-lanes are vulnerable to disruption at many different choke points and hot spots, it’s only natural for Japan to seek the best means for securing those sea-lanes. And that can be accomplished only within its close strategic alliance with the United States. The absolutely indispensable security element for us is the strategic alliance with the United States.”

As a pillar to strengthen that strategic cooperation, Japan has moved strongly to join the US effort to construct a defense system against ballistic missiles. In 2005, Japan will spend around $1 billion on research and development related to the American ballistic missile defense (BMD) program, for instance, and an estimated $10 billion this decade. Tokyo reportedly plans to acquire a missile defense system that is fully interoperable with the Pentagon system, which will have upper and lower tiers. Japan already has purchased four Aegis destroyers, and it plans to acquire two more. The Aegis system is an integral part in the planned Navy Theater Wide (NTW) missile defense system that will have an upgraded SM-3 interceptor missile. Japan also plans to buy the Patriot PAC 3 antimissile system for its lower tier.

In his article “The Revival of the US-Japanese Alliance,” Blumenthal points out that Japan’s decision to acquire the “made in America” ballistic missile defense has even greater strategic significance. “To make the BMD system effective, Japan and the United States will have to take a number of measures to harmonize plans and procedures at both the strategic and operational levels,” he wrote. Because the Japanese BMD system will rely heavily on US satellites for missile detection, for instance, the United States and Japan will have to closely harmonize command and control arrangements and equipment interoperability.

“Once Japan acquires the NTW system, chances are good that the United States will call upon Japan to deploy its seaborne assets to fill information and coverage gaps to support missions not directly related to defending Japan, such as the defense of Taiwan,” wrote Blumenthal.

Indeed, as US officials study ways to accommodate and, if necessary, contain China’s strategic ascendance, Japan’s conventional self-defense forces offer enticing capability that can greatly enhance and augment US forces in the Pacific. While Japan has minimal capability in terms of ground forces, for instance, its air and naval forces are far more capable.

Japanese Airpower

Japan has purchased more than 200 high-technology F-15J fighters and some 30 F-2 fighters (similar to US F-16 Falcons). Significantly, Japan also owns four AWACS airborne command and control aircraft and the 80 P-3 Orion patrol aircraft armed with antiship and antisubmarine weapons. The JASDF is also purchasing four Boeing 767 tanker aircraft to give the air defense forces an air refueling capability (the first tanker is slated for delivery in 2006). Already, Japanese F-15s flying from dispersed bases can project power over the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and regional sea-lanes a great distance from the home islands.

Because of its defensive posture, the JASDF lacks significant precision air-to-ground capability for offensive operations, but its air superiority capabilities are tops in the region. “Measured by number of modern fighter aircraft, by airborne early warning assets, and by pilot training, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force is competitive with those of other leading military powers,” wrote Jennifer M. Lind in a recent research paper sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, Japan arguably has the world’s fourth most powerful air force, after the United States, Great Britain, and France. Russia fields a large but inadequately trained force averaging only 20 flying hours per pilot each year.”

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is similarly impressive. Its four modern battle groups boast sophisticated air defense and antisubmarine warfare capability that allows them to operate far from home islands and near contested areas. In terms of major surface combatants (Japan has 54) and tonnage, Japan has the world’s third largest fleet. Once again its defensive posture limits the fleet’s capability to launch offensive strikes ashore, but its sea control capabilities are better than most of the world’s great powers.

“In terms of naval capabilities, Japan ranks near Great Britain and above any other European great power,” wrote Lind. “The Chinese Navy, with a slightly higher number of major surface combatants, consists primarily of light frigates and has very poor air defense capabilities relative to Japan. The JMSDF’s fleet air defense capabilities are excellent, surpassed only by the United States. … Japan’s P-3s could devastate the navy of any East Asian country.” So while the United States clearly has the world’s most powerful navy, “Japan and Great Britain probably vie for second place.”

For years, Washington has been prodding its quiet ally in the Pacific to finally step forward into the ranks of the great powers. The time has come, US officials insist, for Tokyo to assume responsibilities and duties in the region and around the world that are more commensurate with Japan’s great wealth and influence. Now, the message coming back across the Pacific, while characteristically softly spoken, is nevertheless unmistakable: “We’re ready.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Guard and Reserve in a Time of War,” appeared in the July 2004 issue.