Daily Yomiuri, April 23, 2006
It seems to be about time to ponder a new national security strategy. Strategy during the Cold War was centered around the theory of mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and Soviet Union that subordinated conventional military strategies under the notion of so-called flexible response. The mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory, however, was never tested and was further obscured by the introduction of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s idea of missile defense, advanced toward the end of the Cold War.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a “New War” against terrorism was much talked about.
I have dared to distance myself from such debates. I knew these debates were the primary concern of the United States–Japan’s indispensable ally–and that we should fully cooperate with Washington. But I was not certain the New War required new military strategic thinking–apart from a grand idea, such as the preemptive use of force.
In fact, I have often given advice to young scholars going to study at U.S. research institutes, not to spend much time on the so-called new warfare issues, but instead, to take studies centering on the future power balance in East Asia, particularly concerning the emergence of China.
I have become increasingly conscious of China’s military capability. Looking back, I found that, every one or two years, when matters relating to China’s military might were drawn to my attention, I noticed the nation had spectacularly augmented its potential to wage war.
There have been quite a few precedents of rapid change of military balance that eventually changed the course of history.
Military buildup and war
Following the 1840-42 Opium War, China’s Qing dynasty was awakened to the reality that rulers around the world were set on building empires. The Qing emperor rapidly reinforced his nation’s military strength to the extent that it came to be regarded by Western powers as a sleeping lion. This became particularly true when China embarked on a large-scale warship-building project in the 1880s–it built a huge navy, spearheaded by two giant battleships, the Digyuan (Ting Yuan) and Dheyuan (Chen Yuan).
Japan felt the threat of China when it was repeatedly overwhelmed by the Qing’s military superiority on the Korean Peninsula in incidents in the 1880s, and this nation could not help but be brought to its knees when subject to a show of strength by the Qing’s Beiyang (North Sea) fleet on the occasion of its 1886 visit to Nagasaki.
The profound anxiety many Japanese felt at that time about the nation’s security can be seen vividly in commentaries written by thinker Yukichi Fukuzawa.
Japan, in a bid to cope with the menace posed by the Qing, began bolstering its Imperial Navy from about 1890.
Hearing of Japan’s naval buildup prior to the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, Li Hongzhang, chief minister of the Qing government, was seriously alarmed.
“Our country has failed to add even a single vessel to the Beiyang Navy
since its inauguration in 1888,” Li said. “Japan, by contrast, though it, of
course, is nothing but a very tiny country, has devoted itself to building
big battleships year after year by means of adroitly economizing on
government expenditure. The Qing government should urgently increase its
However, Li’s proposal to build more ships never materialized, because the Qing government instead squandered money on celebrations to mark the 60th birthday of Xi Haihou, the empress dowager.
The failure to beef up the Qing’s naval force led to its defeat to Japan in the 1894 Battle of the Yalu, and it led, eventually, to the downfall of the Qing dynasty on one hand and to the rise of Imperial Japan on the other.
The classic example can be found in debates that surged from about 1907 among Britain’s political and military leaders over the menace posed by Germany due to its warship-construction program that began in 1897. This rivalry culminated in the outbreak of World War I.
Decades later, in the 1970s, the Soviets–keen to vent their decade-old anger against the United States over the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis–launched massive armament projects on the strength of funds it had obtained thanks to two rounds of sharp rises in crude oil prices during the 1970s.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union loomed as a threat when it caught up with–and even threatened to surpass–the United States in terms of its number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and tonnage of naval fleet vessels.
In the 1970s, however, Washington, its focus blurred by a misty-eyed detente policy, failed to address the menace of the Soviet Union. Stunned by the 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the United States embarked on a full-fledged military buildup while calling on its Western allies to beef up their respective military strengths.
Allies of the United States complied with Washington’s request. Following the military buildup carried out during the 1980s, the Self-Defense Forces were so advanced and of such a high quality it was singled out for praise as a “hidden success story” by Jim Auer, former chief of the Japan desk at the Pentagon. Indeed, the Japanese helped the power balance in the Far East reverse in favor of the West and bring triumph to the West in the Cold War, at least in Asia.
Perils from East China Sea
It seems the situation currently unfolding in East Asia is gradually becoming analogous to these historic precedents.
Threats directly affecting Japan’s security are those relating to the balance of military power in the East China Sea.
As things stand, the situation is sort of stable at this moment.
This is because although Beijing has currently been behaving audaciously, as if having a colossal naval force behind it, its real might has remained
feeble. Japan, on the other hand, despite its maritime and air forces being overwhelmingly superior to China’s, has been abiding to a strictly pacifist, defensive security policy.
There can be no telling, however, what could happen if the military capabilities of the two narrow.
Regarding affairs related to marine resources, Japan has taken the position that a “median line” should demarcate the exclusive economic zones of the two countries. China, for its part, challenges Japan’s position, claiming all resources in the seabed are its own as long as they are on the continental shelf that extends from the mainland of China through waters close to Okinawa Prefecture.
The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea do, in fact, sit on the continental shelf. As the islands are effectively controlled by Japan as its territory, however, it is indisputable that the median line should lie on the continental shelf.
However, given the islands are uninhabited and China has claimed them, there can be no knowing if and when China will attempt to exercise control over them. Beijing could do anything to gain control of the islands, should the command of the sea and air around them be shifted to China.
As for command of the air, Japan has 200 F-15 Eagle fighters, and their pilots are superbly trained.
Of China’s fighters, those with comparable capabilities to the F-15s are the Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s.
China began introducing these fighters about a decade ago, when they had 20 to 30 of them. Currently, however, the number of the fighters is close to 200.
Nevertheless, the servicing of the fighters and the quality of pilot training are both considered to be of low quality, so they are still far from being a match for the SDF.
However, in the future, there will certainly be improvements in terms of both of the number and performance of China’s Sukhoi fighters and its air-combat capability will, sooner or later, catch up with Japan’s.
In the 1980s, Japan’s endeavors to modernize its military were remarkable. However, Japan has yet to take any measures to counter China’s rapid arms buildup.
The situation we face is just like the one Li Hongzhang, the chief minister of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century, lamented when he spoke of his nation’s failure to “add even a single vessel to the Beiyang Navy” since its inception.
Even more problematic is the fact the government, at the suggestion of the Finance Ministry, made a decision last year to cut back on the number of SDF aircraft and vessels.
Threats facing Japan will grow if China increases its armaments. Likewise, the menace posed to this country also increases when our might is slashed. This is tantamount to Japan creating new threats by its own hand.
We have no time to waste in making the nation’s military expenditure immune from budgetary cutbacks. In particular, expenditure on aircraft and naval vessels necessary to patrol the East China Sea, as well as missile defense outlays made in response to China’s missile deployments must be protected.
The current international military balance requires it.
Japan-U.S. alliance all-important
Another problem is that of nuclear weapons.
Evidently, the pace of China’s military buildup, propelled by two-digit percentage point increases of its budget, year-on-year for 18 consecutive years, is extraordinary.
Had China’s military expenditure focused totally on bolstering naval and air forces in the East China Sea, it would have found it quite easy to tilt the military balance in its favor and even to acquire a carrier task force.
Despite the dearth of transparency of information regarding China’s military spending, it might be reasonable to surmise that a large chunk of its military budget has been spent on developing nuclear arms and missiles.
Especially noteworthy in this connection is that China’s defense spending began to soar in 1997, accompanied by a cut of half a million army personnel in the same year.
In the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, China threatened a nuclear strike on the West Coast of the United States. Presumably, that was nothing but a bluff.
China today must be making a concerted effort to make what it threatened during that crisis a real possibility.
A new mode of thinking is also needed regarding nuclear strategies. Not only China but also Russia have been eager to maintain their post-Cold War nuclear deterrents. Moscow recently announced plans to develop mobile SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In this age when India and Pakistan seem to have been given de facto permission to have nuclear arms, and while no effective means are to be found to prevent Iran and North Korea from going nuclear, what kind of nuclear strategy, especially for Japan, should be worked out? I cannot discuss this here because of space limitations, and I would like to take it up on another occasion.
If asked to state my conclusion first, however, it is that all that is needed for Japan’s strategy is to strengthen its alliance with the United States.
That is, Japan-U.S. relations must be recast anew, to give more potency to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s statement that an attack on Japan would be regarded as an attack on the United States.
To make this statement a reality, the Japan-U.S. relationship must be raised to the level of the British-U.S. relationship by, above all, declaring Japan’s decision to exercise its right of collective self-defense, as pointed out in the 2000 Armitage Report.
For Japan, an alliance with the United States is indispensable. Efforts should be redoubled on the part of Tokyo to forge strong links with Washington to make the Japan-U.S. alliance indispensable in the eyes of the United States as well.
When the alliance with Japan across the Pacific is just as essential for the United States as its alliance with Britain across the Atlantic in its dealings with the Eurasian continent we will have achieved a great deal to ensure world peace, as well as to strengthen Japanese and U.S. diplomacy.