How to Safeguard Japan In the Years Ahead: National Security and the Japan-US Alliance

The Future of Sino-Japanese Competition at Sea


China’s maritime presence has been increasing markedly, and this has a strong bearing on Japan’s defense strategy. Michishita Narushige, a specialist in international strategy studies, considers Japan’s response and related issues.

Over the past few years China’s rise has become even more noticeable than before, partly as a result of the fiscal crises affecting the United States and European countries. I am writing this article while in Europe to deliver some lectures, and I have noticed that listeners suddenly show heightened interest when I start talking about China. During a discussion in Madrid, I was startled to hear a government official speak positively about arms exports to China. Spain is one of the countries experiencing a fiscal crisis, and since China has been buying its government bonds, the Spanish evidently see it as their friend.

China has been raising its global profile and steadily expanding its regional influence within Asia. The moves it has been taking toward this end include strengthening and modernizing its armed forces (particularly its navy and air force) and diversifying their operational methods. Simply put, the Chinese are working to build “anti-access capabilities” by beefing up their navy and air force; their objective is to exclude the influence of the United States and other countries from areas such as the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea so as to build a regional order that will serve their own interests.

Given this situation, dealing with the changes in the regional order caused by China’s rise has become the top diplomatic and national security policy issue for Japan and other Asian countries. In this article I will consider China’s maritime activities, Japan’s response, and future concerns connected to this issue.

China's Maritime Activities

At this point China’s short-term objective in strengthening its anti-access capabilities is to prevent US intervention in Taiwan. Over the medium term, it seeks to prevent both the United States and its own neighbors, including Japan, from having a say concerning the shape of the regional order or disputing its claims to the ownership of territory and resources. To achieve these objectives China has been working to strengthen and develop its armaments, especially surface vessels, submarines, fighters, bombers, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). In particular, medium-range ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles can threaten forward-deployed US forces and US military bases in Japan, and Sovremenny-class destroyers equipped with multiple anti-ship missiles and hard-to-detect Kilo-class submarines are capable of obstructing the activity of US carriers and other mobile strike forces in the waters around China and the western Pacific Ocean. Technological hurdles lie in the way of actual use of ASBMs, making it unlikely that they can pose a real threat to US naval vessels. But even if the missiles do not score direct hits on their targets, putting them into service can force the Americans to take costly countermeasures and make US policymakers think twice about positioning carriers and other vessels in the waters around China. And even without ASBMs, the Chinese can use J-20 stealth aircraft for anti-access purposes.

In many respects China’s anti-access strategy is similar to the “sea control” and “sea denial” strategies adopted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets sought to turn the Sea of Okhotsk into a sanctuary, drawing lines of control and denial around it so as to interdict access. China is seeking to establish two defensive lines in its own vicinity, the First Island Chain and Second Island Chain, with the aim of turning the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea into sanctuaries. It is no mere coincidence that the Chinese have introduced many of the types of equipment that the Soviets developed and produced during the Cold War. 

Japan’s Response

How has Japan been responding to China’s moves? The response has three aspects: improving Japan’s defense capabilities, strengthening Japan-US cooperation, and enhancing cooperation with the countries in the region.

Improving Japan’s Defense Capabilities

Japan’s initiatives to improve its defense capabilities were set forth in the National Defense Program Guidelines as revised in 2010. The current NDPG espouses a “Dynamic Defense Force” capable of responding flexibly and seamlessly to various scenarios ranging from peacetime to wartime situations. This entails bolstering Japan’s capabilities as well as strategic presence capabilities through more robust patrol and surveillance activities combined with enhanced training and exercises.

This is an approach grounded in the perception that the nature of the future rivalry between China on the one hand and Japan, the United States, and other regional states on the other will be characterized by long-term peacetime competition with occasional skirmishes and clashes at sea and in the air—instead of major armed conflicts. In 2010 Chinese navy helicopters flew provocatively close to destroyers from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, and a Chinese ship pursued a Japan Coast Guard hydrographic survey vessel within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (in waters that China claims as part of its own EEZ) and demanded that it halt its surveys. Diversionary moves like these are typical of the sort of incidents that we can expect to see breaking out from time to time between China and Japan. If the Chinese keep up this sort of behavior, it is quite possible that more serious crises will occur. The situation is further complicated by the possibility that isolated actions taken by private citizens may give rise to a crisis in bilateral relations, as seen at the time of the 2010 incident in the Senkaku Islands, when the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel decided to bump into Japan Coast Guard patrol boats.

Numerous crises occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. This was because the Cold War had not been going on very long, and the “rules of the game” between the two sides had yet to be clearly established. Similarly, the rules of the game have not yet been established between today’s China and its neighbors. Moves to clarify these rules have barely started, while those on both sides continue to take diversionary moves directed at each other. In a period like this accidents are bound to happen. The EP-3 incident on Hainan Island in 2001 and the incidents in 2010 that I mentioned above are harbingers of the crises that will occur in the future. Crisis management is crucial in such times, and it is essential that the leaders of the countries involved take quick and wise action in a crisis.

Strengthening Japan-US Cooperation

Japan and the United States are strengthening bilateral cooperation in order to better cope with the new strategic environment emerging in the region. What is important in this regard is the “air-sea battle” concept that the United States is currently focusing on. This operational concept, which is being developed by the United States as a means of countering China’s access denial strategy, involves the enhancement of long-range strike capabilities and the strengthening of joint operations among land, sea, and air forces. Japan’s cooperation is seen as essential, inasmuch as (a) the Japanese Self-Defense Forces play an important role in defending the US bases in Japan, (b) China’s First Island Chain defensive perimeter runs along Japan’s Southwestern Islands, and (c) the Japanese SDF have a powerful anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. During the Cold War, Japan and the United States countered the Soviet Union’s sea denial strategy with the “Maritime Strategy” under which Japan played an important role in such areas as ASW, air defense, and mine warfare. Japan can be expected to have a similarly key role to play under the new air-sea battle concept.

Bolstering Cooperation with the Countries in the Region

Finally, Japan is bolstering cooperation with countries in the region. If we compare China’s growth rate with that of Japan and of the United States, it is evident that these two countries will not be able to compete on their own with China. Over the decade between 2001 and 2010, China’s defense budget increased by 189%, as compared to the 1.7% drop in Japan. Both Japan and the United States are trying to address this situation by promoting their own economic growth through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but such moves by themselves will not allow them to match China’s pace of expansion.

Japan and the United States are therefore seeking to respond to China’s rise by strengthening their cooperation with friendly nations in the region. This is why Japan, in its 2010 NDPG, explicitly refers to South Korea, Australia, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and India, setting forth a policy of seeking stronger defense cooperation with these countries.

Chinese Naval Activities in the Seas Around Japan

Nov. 2004 A submerged nuclear submarine cruises through the waters near Okinawa.
Sep. 2005 Five ships, including a Sovremenny-class destroyer, cruise through waters near the Kashi gas field in the East China Sea.
Oct. 2008 Four ships, including a Sovremenny-class destroyer, pass through the Tsugaru Strait.
Nov. 2008 Four ships, including a Luzhou-class destroyer, pass between the islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima toward the Pacific Ocean.
Dec. 2008 Two maritime survey vessels enter the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands.
Jun. 2009 Five ships, including a Luzhou-class destroyer, pass through the Southwestern Islands and sail to the vicinity of Okinotorishima island.
Mar. 2010 Six ships, including a Luzhou-class destroyer, pass between the islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima to the Pacific Ocean.
Apr. 2010 Ten ships, including Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers, pass between the islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima to the Pacific Ocean.

Future Issues

Faced with the new reality, what kind of actions should Japan take in the months and years ahead? First, Japan needs to become actively involved in developing the air-sea battle concept. This has yet to be turned into a detailed operational concept, and the roles and missions of the United States and its allies and friends have not been specified. So there is still room to make improvements. For example, some advocates of this concept stress the need for deep strike capability that was a feature of the AirLand Battle doctrine during the Cold War. However, unless major war breaks out between the United States and China, it is highly unlikely that the United States will launch a deep strike against China. So the question is: is it worth devoting a tremendous amount of resources to acquire such a capability? To be sure, possessing this sort of capability can be justified as cost-imposing strategies toward China in peacetime. But the fiscal burden it would involve cannot be ignored.(*1) If the name of the game that we are engaging in is long-term peacetime competition with occasional clashes and skirmishes, it would be more appropriate to invest the limited resources on our ability to better deal with such competition, whose main theater of operations lies in the seas and airspace off the Chinese continent.

Also, the report on the air-sea battle declares, “The continuing demonstration of US ability to dominate at any level of escalation is critical to maintaining crisis stability in the event of Sino-US tensions or confrontation,” but it is questionable whether the United States can afford the luxury of maintaining this capability level.(*2) Any operational concept must be shaped primarily by political judgment as to the nature of the future strategic environment and the way we intend to resolve international tensions; this process should not be led solely by military operational logic. In that sense Japan’s concept of a Dynamic Defense Force aiming to deal “seamlessly” with many different scenarios in both peacetime and wartime may be more useful than the air-sea battle concept, and Japan should undertake serious discussions with the United States concerning the issue of how to bring the two strategies together in a mutually reinforcing manner.

Second, as we consider Japan’s strategy for the future, we must make a sober assessment as to where our competitive advantages lie. For example, the Quadrennial Defense Review issued by the United States in 2010 declared that it is important to “exploit advantages in subsurface operations” with regard to competing with China in the future. This is clearly an area in which Japan can make a contribution, given the SDF’s strength in anti-submarine warfare and the plan set forth in the 2010 NDPG to increase Japan’s fleet of submarines from 16 to 22. In addition, the QDR calls for moves to “increase the resiliency of US forward posture and base infrastructure.” This matter also relates to Japan and includes such issues as how to improve the resiliency of the American bases in our country, as well as the redundancy and dispersal of base functions.(*3)

Finally, in formulating a strategy toward China, we need to bear in mind that even Chinese leaders do not have a clear and coherent set of strategies. Rather, they will keep modifying their strategies over the years to come. We all recognize that China’s future is uncertain, so we should not forget that it is uncertain even for Chinese leaders. Japan and the United States responded jointly to the Soviet threat in the Pacific in the 1970s and 1980s, but it bears noting that Soviet strategy changed dramatically from the former to the latter decade: In the 1970s the Soviets’ naval strategy was directed at disrupting Western sea lines of communication, but in the 1980s the focus shifted to the primarily defensive role of the Soviet Navy in protecting its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) as the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear reserve forces. In the period to come, as we consider our strategy toward China, we should remain attentive to the changes in that country’s military and diplomatic strategy and the interactions between our strategy and theirs.

(*1) ^ For the contents of an exchange of views between the author and an expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which devised the air-sea battle concept, see my post on the website of the Canon Institute for Global Studies, October 24, 2011 (in Japanese).

(*2) ^ Jan van Tol with Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), p. 10.

(*3) ^ Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 2010, p. 33.

China South China Sea East China Sea National Defense Program Guidelines Michishita Narushige People’s Liberation Army Navy anti-access capabilities Sovremenny class destroyer Kilo class submarine anti-ship ballistic missile ASBM First Island Chain Second Island Chain Yellow Sea exclusive economic zone Senkaku Islands air-sea battle