// You are reading...

Asia Pacific

Nihon-no atarashī yoake (Japan’s New Dawn)


Common Sense has been following the ongoing conflict over the islands of the South China Sea – and the mineral and fishing wealth they offer – for some time[1]. There are a number of states involved, but the central feature of all disputes is China’s claims to sovereignty and an economic exclusion zone over the entire area. The tens of thousands of rocky and coral islands are largely uninhabited, but the shallow seas hold the potential for substantial wealth in the form of fisheries and minerals, particularly oil and gas.

China’s claims for various bits of the SCS are disputed by Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia; and China’s claim to the whole of the South China Sea is disputed by the United States and Australia. Behind the rising tensions is the steady build-up of Chinese economic and military power, especially naval power, and a growing sense among China’s neighbors that the era of good neighborliness and soft power was coming to an end. The panda has claws after all.

The newest crisis flared in September when the Japanese government announced plans[2] to purchase a disputed group of 6 rocky islets called alternately the Senkaku or the Diaoyu Islands. These islands were owned by a private Japanese individual for years, a slightly anomalous situation which nevertheless served the purposes of both governments. However, the nationalist Mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, had been publically campaigning to use public funds to purchase and develop the islands for Japan (they would have formed part of the prefecture of Tokyo despite being hundreds of miles from the city).

The Japanese government felt that this was an unacceptable solution. Not only would it be a political victory for the Mayor’s nationalist agenda, the economic development of the islands would be an intolerable affront to China. The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reasoned that it was better to buy the islands and NOT develop them, thus avoiding a long-term irritation to the government in Beijing.

Despite this logic and Japanese attempts to downplay the move, China was furious. As soon as news of a potential purchase leaked out in August, a group of Chinese nationalist activists sailed to the islands in order to assert China’s claims. They were detained and deported by Japanese security forces. China warned and threatened, and when Japan finalized the purchase on 11 September, roundly condemned it and threatened consequences.

These materialized immediately with a massive effort to boycott Japanese goods, which has seriously affected the trade relationship between the world’s second and third largest economies.[3] The Sino-Japanese trade relationship is worth approximately $340 billon. Particularly hard hit have been Japanese automakers Toyota, Honda and Nissan, which has seen sales in China drop. This comes at a very bad time for Japan, when the manufacturing sector is straining to maintain competitiveness in the face of ferocious competition from Asian rivals.

The balance of trade is also suffering from Japan’s decision to shut down its nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, necessitating large increases in oil and gas imports. Coupled with rising prices for both crude and LNG from increased world demand, Japan’s current account has turned strongly and worryingly negative. 

China has also been making provocative gestures, including sending non-military boats to contested waters. The Japanese Coast Guard has so far been able to avoid any unfortunate incidents that might escalate the crisis, but they have reported that Chinese surveillance vessels have been lurking just outside what Japan claims to be territorial waters.[4]

During his post-election visit to South East Asia, President Obama waded into the muddy waters and reaffirmed the Japanese-American alliance as the “cornerstone” of the region’s security architecture.[5] The US and Japan had previously decided to go ahead with the previously scheduled annual joint naval exercises, Keen Sword, but the allies did cancel the portion of the exercise that simulated an amphibious landing to retake an island[6]. President Obama nevertheless met with leaders of both nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in an attempt to smooth relations.

Troubled Waters, Deep Currents

The timing of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands flare up is untimely for both nations, but it is merely symptomatic of wider conflict building in the South China Sea. The region is experiencing an incipient arms race, as the chart below shows. East Asia and South East Asia are amongst the regions with the highest growth in military expenditures, after the United States and Eastern Europe (which is starting from a lower base).


China is leading the way in its military investments. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces are already the largest in the world, but Chinese military leaders were shocked by the ease with which the United States disposed of much larger Iraqi armies through superior technology, tactics and logistics. They have realized, and sold to the Central Committee, that sheer numbers are not enough to guarantee victory or even avoid defeat in a high tech battlefield. At the same time, the Chinese Navy and Air Force argued that they could not even guarantee the security of the Taiwan Strait in the event of an independence crisis with Taipei. This was driven home with a vengeance in 1996, when China wished to intimidate an overly nationalistic government in Taiwan by staging missile tests and naval exercises near the island. The United States responded by sending to aircraft carrier battle groups to the Straits, to which China had no response.

Thus began the complete overhaul of the Chinese military with an emphasis on attaining a modern force structure capable of engaging the United States military in battle as an equal. China invested very significant sums in a first phase to develop area denial capabilities, mainly “carrier killer” long-range missiles and air defense systems. As the immediate threat to the Chinese coast has receded, Chinese ambitions have grown. The Chinese Navy and Air Force have pushed very hard for a second phase of modernization to develop power projection capabilities commensurate with China’s growing economic power.

The Chinese Navy purchased a Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft carrying cruiser: essentially a small aircraft carrier. Renamed the PLAN Liaoning, this aging vessel doesn’t change the balance of power in the Pacific, or even in the South China Sea, but it does give China a platform to train its officers and seamen in the difficult task of carrier task group operations.  On 25 November, the Chinese defense ministry published photographs of their first ever successful take-off and landing operations on a carrier deck[7]. Chinese shipyards will soon begin to construct a new generation of aircraft carriers for the PLAN, perhaps full-sized carriers to rivals those in the US Navy.

The PLAAF has not been idle. There has been considerable technological cooperation and knowledge transfer between China and Russia, with Russia selling numbers of 4.5 generation multi-role fighters to the Chinese Air Force. Now, China has developed not one but two 5th generation aircraft to rival the USAF’s F-22 and F-35 programs. The Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 are both multi-role fighter aircraft incorporating stealth technology. They are dissimilar aircraft in some respects, perhaps indicating different roles: the Chengdu J-20 is considerably larger and might be a land-based dedicated interceptor, while the smaller J-31 has similarities to the F-35, and like the American aircraft, might be intended for both a land and naval role. China has also developed a stealth bomber, the Xian H-8.


Although the true capabilities all this equipment remains unknown, they are no Potemkin Village. While the USN and USAF almost certainly maintain a technological and organizational lead, not to mention superior experience in actual combat operations, the vast strides taken by the Chinese military cannot be ignored. The gap in capabilities has narrowed tremendously and will continue to narrow towards parity.

While this qualitative improvement is proving unsettling to the United States, it is downright nerve-wracking for China’s neighbors, most of who cannot hope to compete with neither the technological improvements nor the quantities of equipment and personnel. This seismic shift to the regional balance of power is what permits China to be so much more assertive than even 10 years ago. None of China’s rivals in the South China Sea wish to cede their claims of sovereignty, but without major efforts and US support, they may not be able to avoid it.

The Inevitable Arms Race

There are some China watchers who warn that US belligerence might be leading the region to an arms race, which would be detrimental to regional security and to economic development. President Obama’s strategic shift back to the Pacific has its share of sincere critics. Indeed, some commentators have gone so far as to recommend appeasement[8] of China over her claims, arguing that once China has access to the oil, gas and fisheries of the SCS, the need for an arms race will vanish.

These interpretations demonstrate a misunderstanding of the fundamental factors driving Chinese actions. Political considerations, such as the isolation of Taiwan and the defense of China’s long and vulnerable coastline have largely been achieved already. Economic considerations related to the exploitation of the South China Sea are certainly important, but they are nevertheless not critical, and could at any time be addressed through negotiation of shared rights to the marine resources which would always favor China.

The driving force behind the arms race is purely geographic. China is in many respects an island; and like any island, it lives and dies by its sea lines of communication (SLOC). China’s major population centers are all on the coast or on the two major rivers that have defined “China” for 5,000 years[9]. These population centers are surrounded by extensive tracks of very difficult terrain, some of it almost insurmountable to large-scale trade and military movements. From north to south, these features are: the boreal forests of Eastern Siberia, the arid steppe of the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, the Tian Shan, Pamir and Himalayan mountains, and the mountains and equatorial jungle that stretch from Yunnan to Vietnam.

 See Video: The Geography of China’s Naval Challenge

This geographical reality, coupled with a vast population and large army, makes China secure from external threat from the land; but it means that China is vulnerable and dependent on the sea.


More than half of China’s economy depends on trade, a far higher percentage than either Japan or the United States. These trade flows move mostly by water. Additionally, China is highly dependent on petroleum imports to fuel her ever growing fleet of automobiles. As the Chinese middle class continues to grow, so too will her oil appetite. Domestic production has increased substantially, but more than 40% of China’s oil must be imported from foreign producers.

All of these imports and exports must travel over a limited number of well-established sea lanes defined by a number of narrow straits that serve to channelize traffic. To reach the Pacific, ships departing China must pass between Taiwan and the Philippines or between Taiwan and Okinawa. To reach the Indian Ocean, ships must pass through the Indonesian archipelago. Almost 99% of the crude oil and LNG that is shipped to East Asia passes through the Malacca Strait, only 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point[10].

If the Malacca Strait were closed to traffic, some 60,000 ships would have to be rerouted hundreds of miles to the south and west. Even then, they would still have other choke points to cross: the Sunda Strait, the Lombok Strait, the Torres Strait, the Makassar Strait, the Balabec Strait. The seas around the East Indies are full of narrow straits and passages.

In every case, these straits either border a key US ally (South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia) or else are within easy reach of a major US naval and air base (Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Singapore); in some cases, both are true. China is safe from the land; but China is surrounded and hemmed in by sea.

China must secure its “near abroad”: it is hard to believe that a rising superpower will long allow its energy and trade lifelines to be completely at the mercy of a potential rival. Just as the US fought a war against Spain to remove the threat of a foreign naval power in Cuba, and annexed Hawaii to gain strategic depth for the West Coast, so China must ensure that Taiwan returns to Greater China, the Diaoyu Islands are neutralized, and Chinese power is extended as far over the South China Sea as possible. These goals require a substantial naval force.

Unfortunately for China, however, Japan is an important naval power in her own right, with a long history and experience in blue water and carrier operations. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is smaller than China’s Navy, but there are many classes of ships in Chinese service which are considered obsolescent and are being phased out. Japan also has much greater experience in blue water operations both independently and in joint operations with the U.S. Navy, which gives the JMSDF a great deal of flexibility despite lacking some categories of ships altogether, such as true aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines.


Japanese Resurgence

Japan is understandably worried by China’s growing naval strength. The same geographical imperatives that apply to China, apply to Japan to an even greater degree since Japan lacks the natural resources that China has. Japanese territory is threatened in any future conflict between China and the United States: Okinawa and Amami are the keys to the East China Sea, and Kyushu is only 600 miles from Shanghai. All three are within easy range of Chinese missiles and could expect to have naval and air facilities targeted.

Japan is worried enough that they been quietly upgrading their blue water capabilities for the past few years. The Japanese Navy commissioned a new class of helicopter destroyer in 2009, the Hyūga class. Don’t be misled by the classification of this ship as a “destroyer”: every surface combatant in the Japanese Navy is classified as a destroyer. The 19,000 ton Hyūga-class ships dwarf the ships they are replacing, and are larger than any ship operated by Japan since the Second World War. While the Hyūga and her sister ship Ise normally carry 4 to 10 anti-submarine helicopters, naval experts speculate that these ships could easily be fitted out with VTOL/STOVL fixed wing aircraft, like Harriers or F-35’s[11].

Not six months after the first of the two Hyūga-class ships had been commissioned, Japan announced its intention to build another, even larger class of helicopter destroyer. The DDH-22 class will displace 27,000 tons fully-loaded, and carry up to 14 helicopters. Japanese defense officials again coyly avoid mention of fixed-wing aircraft on these ships, as aircraft carriers are forbidden by the Japanese Constitution as “offensive weapons”.

These new ships are a still far smaller than China’s imported 67,500 ton carrier; much less the US Navy’s 100,000 ton Nimitz-class super carrier. But they reinforce the trend in Pacific navies and the likelihood of an arms race. Besides China, India operates an aircraft carrier and plans to have four operational by 2017. Thailand also operates a light aircraft carrier. Australia no longer operates aircraft carriers, but Australian pilots routinely practice carrier landings on American carrier decks.[12]

Japan is the only East Asian nation with the economic and industrial potential, the manpower and the experience to challenge Chinese naval dominance without the United States. Japan is on the front-lines, uncomfortably close to China and within easy reach of her naval, air and missile forces. Both nations also share a history of antagonism since the 1870’s. The ongoing increase in Chinese power will force Japan to re-evaluate its defense posture and perhaps even modify its Constitution to the extent of permitting previously outlawed categories of weapons.

China’s rise could very well lead to Japan’s resurgence and a significant expansion of Japanese military power.  Should the East Asian arms race heat up, and should the US demonstrate weakness in its commitment to the Pacific due to fiscal constraints or troubles in other regions, it is possible that Japan might feel that the only means of ensuring her security would be to develop a nuclear deterrent. Japanese citizens remain far from supportive of such a measure, but popular opinion could change quickly if the country’s security deteriorates.

Sources and Notes

[1] “Japan picks US F-35 for JSDAF”, “The Fall of Europe”“India Test Fires China-Killer Missile”, “Pacific Heat”
[2] “Japan confirms disputed islands purchase plan,” BBC News, 10 September 2012
[3] “Q&A: China-Japan islands row,” BBC News, 11 September 2012
[4] Colapinto, Richard, “Mounting Sino-Japanese Tension Amid Military Exercise,” Atlantic Sentinal, 6 November 2012
[5] Ten Kate, Daniel and Talev, Margaret, “Obama Affirms Japan Ties as China Sea Spats Threaten Trade,” Bloomberg, 20 November 2012
[6] Ibid, 4
[7] Rabinovich, Simon, “China passes ‘crucial’ as as jet lands on carrier,” Financial Times, 26 November 2012
[8] Not that anyone actually uses the expression “appeasement” but it comes out just as craven however it is said.
[9] The Yellow and Yangtzé Rivers
[10] www.globalsecurity.org
[11] DDH-161 Hyuga, Global Security
[12] Herman, Arthur, “Pacific Armadas: Growing Far East Navies Mean New Challenges for US,” New York Post, 09 September 2007

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 792 other subscribers