In a white paper released last week, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accused China of 'engaging in dangerous acts that could give rise to an emergency situation.' (Agence France-Presse)
TOKYO — For the first time, Japan has criticized China over its military buildup in a move that has garnered swift reaction from regional powers and continued Tokyo’s march toward a more assertive posture.
Japan’s move, codified in a white paper released last week, also raises questions about Tokyo’s alliance with Washington amid tense relations with China, experts said.
Fast and furious was the regional response to last week’s document, in which Japan openly sounded the alarm about China’s military buildup and motives. Japan argues that by providing such a blunt assessment, it is acting in the best interests of the region. This change in tack sets the scene for larger changes in Japanese defense policy, analysts said, although just how large remains to be seen.
On July 9, as part of its annual defense white paper, Japan accused China of “rapidly expanding and intensifying its maritime activities … engaging in dangerous acts that could give rise to an emergency situation,” and attempting “to change the status quo by force, based on its own assertion,” calling China’s actions “incompatible with international law.”
In the paper, Japan for the first time called out China on specifics. For example, Japan suggested that the deployment of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and the bolstering of its submarine force are attempts to thwart adversaries’ operations. The report also referred to “dangerous” actions, such as a January incident in which a Chinese vessel locked its fire-control radar on a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer.
Boiling the blood between China and Japan is a dispute over a handful of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku. The dispute recently became more heated after Japan bought several of the islets from their private owners, leading to pushback from China.
In fact, Chinese vessels mounted 41 “intrusions” into Japanese-controlled waters, according to the Japanese Coast Guard, while the white paper notes that Japanese fighter jets were scrambled more than 300 times in the year leading up to March.
'Hyping' the Threat
Reaction from China and South Korea was as swift as it was angry. China accused Japan of “hyping the so-called China threat and creating regional tensions to mislead international opinion,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Meanwhile, the white paper riled the South Korean government, as the two countries are at loggerheads over ownership over another two tiny islets, the Liancourt Rocks, which Japan calls Takeshima and South Korea calls Dokdo.
Seoul strongly objects to a clause in the report claiming the rocks for Japan, and “sternly” urged Japan to remove it and refrain from such claims in future, the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The paper also deleted previous references to Japan focusing on “diplomatic efforts” to secure “peace,” and mentioned the Dawn Blitz amphibious exercises last month in Southern California, which involved the US Marine Corps’ 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force and units from Canada and New Zealand.
Dong Wang, director of the School of International Studies at Peking University, told Defense News he “wasn’t surprised” by the white paper.
“I just think Japan should reduce their rhetoric and paranoia about China a little bit,” he said. “But of course, it is unsurprising at all that Japan’s military and the government would have every incentive to portray China as the aggressive party and itself as the innocent, which, of course, is merely a reflection of the Japanese government’s positions.”
Analysts said the white paper is preparing the ground for a more muscular defense posture promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to create a force to protect Japan’s southern island chain and introduce pre-emptive strike capability. Abe also wants to change Japan’s constitution to allow it to exercise the right to collective self-defense, which is currently difficult under Article 9 of Japan’s US-imposed “peace” constitution.
Those efforts will be formally announced in new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), Japan’s five-year defense policy, which the Abe administration has fast-tracked to be announced by the end of this year.
Narushige Michshita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, called the white paper’s new clarity and bluntness both necessary and stabilizing.
By putting its cards on the table, Japan can clear up misconceptions of its motives and even change the debate about Japan-China relations, he said.
“First of all, this is a politically led process,” he said. “Second, in terms of threat perception, we are facing a quantum leap in terms of the threats facing Japan. I feel we are being more honest.
“Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” he asked. “It’s a good thing. By revealing our concerns, we are showing the Japanese people and the international community that we understand our situation.
“The second thing is that we are sending a positive signal to China. Before, we were vague. Now we are saying: ‘If you behave irresponsibly, then you have a bad name.’ We are becoming more transparent and responsible,” he said.
Relationship With the US
One key question is whether the changes will enhance the US-Japan security alliance, which has been strained by the regional tensions even while the US military copes with the huge demands of sequestration, said Takashi Kawakami, deputy director and professor of the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University.
A key element of the security guarantee is Article 5, which commits the US to defend Japan should hostilities break out. The least Japan can do is make things easier for the US, he said.
“This white paper is necessary. This is the first time Japan honestly opened up. If we don’t defend ourselves, we cannot expect the US to aid Japan under Article 5,” Kawakami said.
“And the language is moderate. The US is facing sequestration and budget cutting and urging us to institute the right of collective defense, and we are saying we need limited amphibious force,” he said. “It is the language of a normal country.”
This new clarity — at least on paper — is largely welcomed by the US, particularly the attention the report gives to the primacy of the security alliance, said a US official deeply familiar with Japan-US issues.
But it also comes at a time when both partners are navigating their own deeper waters in the relationship. The US encourages Japan to do more to defend itself, but that requires statesmanship, the official said, referring to a string of issues Abe has run into with his more strident brand of nationalism and political rhetoric that is ratcheting up tensions.
“A more capable ally is a good thing. The white paper is sensible,” the official said. “As it notes, our alliance is essential, so [Abe] has to act more of a statesman and watch what he says if Japan is to move successfully to the center. He seems unable to bite his tongue. That is a distraction, and also undercuts support for Japan in Washington.”
Japan’s new stance also reflects deeper fears that the US is growing weary of what is seen as Japan getting its defense on the cheap, with the US wanting Japan to take on more military responsibility.
The key test now is whether Japan will find the money to make changes.
“Japan has effectively received $80 billion in free defense yearly for decades,” the official said. “This isn’t just about buying hardware. It’s about funding training and operations. Ultimately, without cash, the white paper will be creating a child’s Christmas wish list.”
Christopher Hughes, a professor of international politics and Japanese studies at Britain’s Warwick University, agreed that the new frankness is a signal to China that Japan does not intend to be intimidated by China’s activities.
“[Japan] has shifted to talking about China’s military modernization as something potentially dangerous,” Hughes said. “It is a sign of Japan’s determination not to be coerced by China. Both China and the US would be well advised to take note of the tone.”
“If this presages change in Japanese defense policy, the answer is yes,” said Alessio Patalano, a naval expert and lecturer in war studies at Kings College London. He was asked if the white paper marks a move toward a more assertive foreign policy.
The white paper will presage more spending for the next five-year NDPG, which will see investment in a limited amphibious force, perhaps more submarines and the acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“But these new acquisitions will consolidate current doctrines, force structures and overall posture, rather than revolutionize them,” Patalano said.
Wendell Minnick in Taipei contributed.