China "urges" revival of the great Japanese army

How Chinese expansion is fueling Japan's military growth

Japan must learn to rely less on assistance from the United States and take personal responsibility of its territorial disputes, a visiting Japanese military academic says.

Discussing the complex relationship between China and Tokyo in a refreshingly frank seminar at Auckland University this week, Professor Noboru Yamaguchi of the National Defence Academy of Japan highlighted the need for a strong Japan to limit Chinese expansion.

A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, foreground,
sails alongside a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. - Asahi Shimbun file photo
When questioned about whether this personal responsibility would mean Japan investing in a larger fleet of warships, he answered that its military must be able to counter any threat to its territorial integrity.

The Japanese navy already has one of the strongest fleets in the world, despite constitutional restrictions on military spending and capabilities.

While China’s rise in Asia Pacific has helped invigorate the region economically, Prof Yamaguchi emphasised the importance of maintaining a positive-sum game with Beijing – in which all sides benefit – while avoiding the slide into a potentially catastrophic no-win slugging match.

Some of these flashpoints have already made international headlines this year. Contested islands in the South and East China Seas, as well as access to those oceans, have oscillated between simmering and barely contained.

The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) is a particularly fragile flashpoint.

Trouble on the high seas
This fragility is exacerbated by a number of factors. And just like Prof Yamaguchi, many Japanese defence experts worry that China’s military power may be becoming unmanageable.

Both nations' navies in the East China Sea are conducting increasingly aggressive manoeuvres. And such mind games are proving exhausting.

Tokyo also realises the US does not wish to be invloved in Japan’s tenuous territorial disputes. Officially bound by the Japanese constitution to defend Japan, it takes no position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands claims.

Regardless, Washington still has a responsibility to protect Japan if certain conditions are met.

First, to intervene in any dispute over the islands, Washington must be convinced they are under full Japanese control, which they presently are not.

Second, America must conduct any intervention jointly with the Japanese military, a task which would be heavily weighted towards the capabilities of the US Navy.

And third, the islands must be under armed attack. This last condition does not recognise recent landings by Chinese civilians on the windswept rocks to plant flags and chant Chinese nationalist songs as sufficient aggravation. Any provocation must be much more dynamic if the US is to be dragged into the fray.

But the dynamism of the region is quickly becoming a festering wound. Prof Yamaguchi, who has retired from the Japan Self Defence Force, told of Chinese helicopters flying within a few hundred metres of Japanese warships and fixed-wing surveillance aircraft penetrating Japanese-controlled airspace as particularly nerve-wracking examples.

Because the disputed islands sit so far from either Japanese or Chinese land-based early warning radar stations – about 200km for Japan and nearly 300km for China – Prof Yamaguchi says constant surveillance is necessary by both nations.

This is slightly easier for Japan, given its closer proximity. However, China’s speedy development of an aircraft carrier programme may change the balance of power and give Beijing more options as far away as the Pacific Basin.

Optimism tempered with reality
An example was when a Chinese aircraft penetrated Japanese airspace several months ago. Japanese ships near the islands raised the alarm but it took 15-20 minutes for the first jet fighters to arrive. By that time the Chinese plane was well gone.

Prof Yamaguchi says that had the surveillance aircraft been operating instead from the deck of a nearby Chinese aircraft carrier, there may have been a potentially deadly outcome.

He also described the reported targeting of a Japanese warship by Chinese “fire-control radar” – a target locking system used to direct weapons – as an episode of the high-stakes games on the high seas.

When Tokyo officially confronted Beijing about the incident, Chinese officials flatly denied the accusation. The professor described the denial as a heartening sign, indicating China does not wish malice on Japan.

He explained that if Beijing chose instead to embrace the overtly hostile military action, relations between the two nations would be dangerously different.

Prof Yamaguchi describes himself as an optimist, and views US President Barack Obama’s first official foreign visit in 2008 to Japan as a clear sign that the Asia Pacific region will become crucially increasingly important.

The key to a peaceful century is finding areas of co-operation, rather than tension, between the larger powers. He believes this is possible if trust and transparency are developed and maintained.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict. He blogs at LikeBulb.


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