Japan to conduct maritime and aerial patrols over the South China Sea?

Below are some lightly edited remarks provided to the ever-busy Justin McCurry, writing for the Christian Science Monitor on recent suggestions that Japan may take up a great military role in the South China Sea, here.

The prospect of greater SDF involvement in the SCS has been on the radar for a number of years, but I see the timing of bringing this up as being connected to progress on the US-Japan Revised Guidelines. Greater integration of regional operational activities between the US and Japan will be the likely outcome of the negotiations over the revised guidelines that will be finalized sometime this year.

Japan responding favourably to Admiral Thomas’ statement will demonstrate its commitment to increased “burden sharing” in East Asia through the US-Japan alliance; but I would still imagine this will not be a big focus of the negotiations and debate of security issues in the first half of this year. It is likely to be more of a long-term possibility. I don’t think it is posturing, and Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen would jump at the opportunity if they had the chance – but it is likely that there is an appreciation that the SDF taking on this role may not go ahead soon if debate over Japan’s security legislation gets particularly heated later this year.

In terms of regional reactions, clearly China will not react well – but I don’t think the PRC will change its behavior one way or another in response to this. I see no evidence that China would dial down its own activity in the region in regards to its territorial tensions with Philippines and Vietnam if the US or Japan were to pull back. In terms of the reaction of ASEAN nations, if Japanese patrols were initially very modest and within the operational framework of the alliance, I expect most ASEAN nations to be unconcerned, and Vietnam and the Philippines will welcome it. An independently acting Japan would be a different prospect, however, but that is not practically possible and is not really what the discussion is about at this point in time.

There are concerns, however, that the Abe administration is being unnecessarily provocative in even mentioning this.

On the face of it, it may indeed look unnecessary and inflammatory. And it is possible that US and Japanese leaders and officials may still judge it to be too inflammatory at a point in time when Japan is trying to improve relations with the PRC.

But if at some point “patrols” in the SCS do go ahead, the issue can be looked at from a wider view than just that of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Certainly Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the SCS, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict in the SCS, making it a legitimate stakeholder. Few countries anywhere are as dependent on regional maritime approaches as Japan is for both its resources and its income. For this reason, Japan has already been playing a security role in the region for some time, through its anti-piracy initiatives in region cooperating with littoral ASEAN nations. It has also been a critical part of the response to natural disasters in the region. It is likely that Japan would not be patrolling the region in an independent fashion at this point in time, and it will be cooperating with the US and perhaps the Australian navies, especially now that Australian warships have embedded with the 7th Fleet.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether Japan can in practical terms commit to more than just symbolic cooperation in the SCS. A larger commitment of resources could potentially lead to strategic vacuums opening up elsewhere closer to Japan itself, which is still the SDF’s primary responsibility. Without significantly greater investment in the defense budget, Japan’s power projection capabilities will remain modest. There is a great risk of overextending the MSDF in particular, which may not be strategically very wise. This has been an issue with conservatives like Koizumi and Abe – they have big strategic plans for the SDF and the alliance but they do not always appreciate the strategic and resource risks inherent in widening the range of roles and the geographic scope of operations that Japan’s defense officials do.

That said, the Japanese government is quite sensitive about the possibility of there being a future weakening of US commitment to the region in general, and even a symbolic commitment will allow Japan to start to position itself better in the regional strategic order should the US’ strategic rebalance stagnate in the future.

IS and Japan

Taking my lead from a true pro, in lieu of blog postings, I will from time to time post my thoughts on some current events prompted by media enquiries. These will be rough with minimal light editing. 
The Japanese government will not pay a publicised ransom payment, but based on prior practice, the Japanese government may consider back-channel negotiations. The major problem for any possible ransom payment in this particular case is the nature of IS itself. The US-led campaign is slowly undermining IS’ military and financial well being and this threat to Japan might be a sign of desperation. Any Japanese financial contribution to this could, however, have the impact of enabling IS to continue its brutal oppression in the region as well as directly undermine the US fight against IS. It will also work at cross-purposes against Japan’s own non-military, humanitarian aid to the region that IS seems to be so concerned about. The Japanese government will be in no doubt in this case that paying a sizeable ransom could lead to further instability and atrocities in the region.

Like the Algerian crisis in 2013, this crisis does further highlight Japan’s vulnerability to global terrorism. But in some important ways this case is quite different from the Algerian case. The Japanese public in the past has been much less forgiving of individuals who have sought to place themselves in direct conflict zones, while the Algerian situation will be seen as a direct attack on Japan’s citizens and national interests. Even in reaction to this very brazen attack in Algeria, the Japanese government only went as far as strengthening its ability to use military transportation to evacuate citizens. I’d be inclined to think that if the Algerian attack did not rouse the Japanese public and enable the passing of more substantive security legislation, then this event may not be a game changer.

In practical terms, it is unclear what the Japanese government can do in this situation since it does not have the legal or military capability to undertake special forces or other military operations in the Middle East. Aside from the very unlikely possibility that the US and NATO partners have the necessary intelligence to mount a rescue operation on Japan’s behalf, Japan can do little but express support diplomatically for the fight against terrorism. Looking forward, the best option may be for the Japanese government strengthen the working relationship between the SDF and NATO militaries as it has already sought to do over the last three to four years, since Japan is not likely to build the necessary power projection capabilities any time soon.

Domestic Repercussions

If the two men are executed, then immediate anger will probably strengthen Abe’s argument in the short-term that Japan needs to be more mindful of the international nature of threats to Japan’s security and the need to cooperate with the US and its allies.

If Japan had of been providing military aid to the region, then the narrative might have been different, and it could have hurt Abe. The fact that Japan was providing humanitarian aid and was still targeted will suggest that IS is a particularly dangerous and implacable adversary to the Japanese public. But I doubt that Japan will do much more than provide additional non-military and infrastructure aid at this point in response to the possible tragedy.

However, it will almost certainly inject energy and controversy into the drafting of Japan’s new security legislation later this year. Already, subsequent to the 2014 December election, the Komeito had extracted general commitments in negotiations from the LDP to effectively limit the geographic scope of new so-called “collective self-defense” legislation. Those who are already inclined to see any Japanese coordination with foreign militaries as a negative will see this as evidence of why Japan should continue to be circumspect about taking on a higher military profile, while those wanting to see a higher military profile will see this as evidence that Japan cannot afford to sit back and hope other nations can take care of Japan’s security and interests. It will be a source of controversy, which will probably be unwelcome for Abe as Abe lacks the political skill of Koizumi when it comes to managing the public on highly controversial issues of broad public concern such as Japan’s overseas military presence.

In the long-term, as the anger in Japan subsides, it could complicate the passage of defense legislation later this year if that legislation raises the possibility of Japan providing significant military aid to US and NATO operations in the Middle East. While the Japanese public is slowly becoming more comfortable with the SDF and the US military playing an increased role together in (East Asian) regional security, they are still very sceptical about some Japanese politicians’ claims that the Middle East also represents a pressing concern for Japan’s security requiring a Japanese military response, other than perhaps for protecting sea lanes from pirates. Komeito was probably the big winner from the recent election, and insiders have suggested this meant that one of more contentious pieces of legislation – Japanese minesweeping during an ongoing conflict (possibly in the Middle East) – will probably be off the table later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the long-term consequences on CSD legislation were minimal, especially since CSD operations have little to do with what might be required in the current situation.

There has been chatter that Abe might want to let the hostages die, as this might help his agenda for revising the constitution.
Leaving aside the cynicism inherent in such a suggestion, if the arguably more serious Algerian situation did not rouse the Japanese public to support changes allowing direct Japanese military intervention, it seems unlikely that this particular situation will galvanise it. The media impact of this event might be greater than Algeria, but as time passes, concern may subside.

Furthermore, the types of constitutional changes to Article 9 that could pass the Diet and public opinion at this point in time will fall far, far short of allowing high profile rescue operations inside the territory of other nations.

A Hiatus

I am coming to a crucial part of my PhD studies (the end) and I don’t have as much time to pay attention to the comings and goings of Japanese domestic politics right now. I will attempt to post something (or some things) just before the election later this year in July, but don’t be too surprised if there is little other than that.

I have jotted down a few thoughts at JSW regarding a recent NY Times article which had the rather unnecessary headline of “Japan Moving Further Away from Pacifism.”

It isn’t short, but if you have the time and interest, then by all means.

While it Has Gone Quiet within the Senkakus…

The PRC response has finally come through over the last 24 hours. But it has been unsatisfying and shaky, ranging from surprise, to righteous condemnation of Japan’s motives, declaring the incident to be an “absolute fabrication,” now to arguing that the MSDF was silly enough to mistake a surveillance/early warning radar for a fire control radar (that would be indeed be silly, since the Yudachi engaged in evasive manoeuvres to escape the Chinese frigate!)

The Japanese have dug their feet in first by saying that the Chinese response is simply not good enough and for them to go away and think about it more carefully. Then Minister of Defense Onodera has come out and suggested (日) that there was certainly no mistake and that they have video, photographic, and if needed, electronic evidence of the supposed infraction. Onodera argues that, a “normal” radar “spins” while it is monitoring while a fire-control radar continuously tracks the “target” as it moves. 「通常のレーダーはくるくる回って警戒監視をするが、火器管制レーダーはその(目標の)方向に向けてずっと追いかける」

He also said that in addition to the confirmation of this through visual imagery, they have electronic records as well which were carefully analysed by an expert at Yokosuka Naval Base on return. Onodera emphasised that a fire-control radar is a specialized radar that emits a type of electromagnetic wave with a distinctive wave frequency.  「電波を発する機械で、しかも(周波数などが)特殊なレーダーだ。それもしっかり記録しており、証拠として間違いない」

That said, the Japanese government is still considering releasing these records due to it possibly revealing sensitive national security information. It is understood that some in the MOD are not too keen to reveal more than images.

On the bright side, a number of Japanese news agencies have all noticed that PRC incursions around the Senkaku Islands themselves have reduced since the Japanese made their accusations. It will be interesting to see if they double down on the various broad accusations they have made, or whether they will approach the Japanese for a face-saving way out of the issue (for a price perhaps?)1. Or simply ignore it? (the “pfffft….whatever” strategy that the PRC uses when things are really tricky)


Jun Okumura has also been putting up more timely analysis regarding the latest radar incident.

Kyle Mizokami has an interesting thought experiment up at JSW regarding what could have happened between the two vessels involved in the incident militarily, if you are that way inclined.

1 This price could be an agreement along the lines of an agreement not to do such things again in the future such as I mentioned Japan and Russia have agreed to (a tacit admission that that is what happened and removes that particular tactic from the PRC toolbox). Or the implementation of a maritime “hotline” mechanism which has been mooted over the last few years and was apparently making progress towards implementation before the Senkaku controversy erupted late last year. The PRC ambassador in Japan two days ago recognized (日) the need for such a mechanism. The one risk for the PRC with such a hotline is that if it is called upon it may reveal weaknesses and irregularities in terms of the political and military chain of command, a consideration very relevant if we assume that this recent incident is a PLA-level rather than Xi Jinping-level instigated incident. Okumura above even suggests that a dialing down, but not elimination, of Chinese government patrol boats entering into Senkaku waters may be possible, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

Those Dramatic Japanese…

This China Daily “report” demonstrates two notable things.

1)  Japan’s campaign to accuse Chinese radars of “locking onto” a Japanese warship is more like a “political drama…Jiang Xinfeng, an expert on Japanese studies at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, said a radar’s “locking on” is a common and constant reconnaissance practice in regular missions, and the other side usually reciprocates”

Suspicion and skepticism of the US or Japan’s general motives is one thing, but to belittle a rather provocative act in such a way is galling.

Interestingly, this Asahi article (日) notes that while Japan and Russia (for example) have exchanged an agreement banning such actions due to the potential for it to lead to conflict, Japan and China have not exchanged such an agreement. Nevertheless, rather than a “common practice”, it can be regarded as a simulated attack by global standards. With Defense Minister Onodera declaring (日) that such action may be equivalent to the “threat of the use of force,” and thus proscribed by the UN Charter,1 it is unlikely that the Japanese government is going to accept one Jiang Xinfeng’s assertion of innocent naivety.2  

2) “Although the Shinzo Abe cabinet chose a temporary friendly posture for thawing ties, it is still hyping the ‘China threat’,”

While Japanese hawks and conservatives are liable to do such things, the sad fact in this case is that they don’t need to. It is all too easy. With Abe resurrecting the idea of a National Security Council and putting it up for expert discussion not long before the announcement of the incident, this is quite a gift to the administration, especially given the MOD’s apparently (日) slow response in analysing and announcing the actions.

My former supervisor (pro-PRC scholar) liked to say that the biggest consumers of the “China Threat” theory were the Chinese people themselves and not seemingly cynical, suspicious, or racist Westerners. The government and the domestic media would usually take PRC-skeptical overseas content and frame it in a way for the public to show that China was unjustifiably seen as a threat. Pointing to international anti-Chinese sentiment was an important part of CCP regime maintenance as it tried to frame the outside world as a hostile place where anything less than the continuation of a stable, committed and strong Chinese government (the CCP!) could end in the loss of international power and respect for China, and even the loss of sovereignty and a repeat of the century of humiliation.

Lately, however, it seems that the Chinese media is becoming one of the biggest producers of the “China threat” theory, as deliciously demonstrated by the above China Daily report. With the victimization narrative seemingly in place and established in the minds of many, skipping the middle man is so much easier. It is also a great way to avoid taking seriously anything that you may find uncomfortable.

This article also contains further cloying examples of feigned counter-outrage (or perhaps the more succinct 逆切れ) including:

On the eve of (Shinzo Abe’s) upcoming visit to the US, using ‘radar targeting’ to hype up a ‘China threat’ as a bargaining chip to persuade the US to ‘relax restraints’ may be the Abe cabinet’s painstakingly crafted ruse

Japan has “other motives in being the guilty party accusing the victim” over this issue…To win more bargaining chips, Japan chose this moment to suddenly create the tense atmosphere of an imminent Sino-Japanese military conflict to seek concessions from the US on easing restrictions on its right of collective self-defence3

Maybe. But it is all rather besides the point.

1 Including in the defense of territorial integrity, unless there is a corresponding use of force by the other side.
2 The head of the MOD’s Defense Policy Bureau did confirm (日) that the Chinese vessel’s cannons were not positioned towards the MSDF ship during the initial period of radar “painting.” Whether or not it is a breach of the UN Charter, which may be a thin thread to hang this on to be honest, it is certainly a breach of global military custom and common sense. The SDF seamen aboard would have certainly not felt particularly comfortable during the period that the radar was “locked on” to their vessel.
It is less than clear what the relationship is here. It isn’t really the US that Japan has to convince to exercise the right of collective self-defense to protect US vessels. It is irrelevant to the incident in question in this particular case in any respect. 

The Fire-Control Radar Incident: Incompetence or Malice?

When last year’s Defense White Paper (“Defense of Japan”) came out there was much media commentary over whether it represented a new direction for Japanese security policy towards China. I argued at the Shingetsu News Agency that such rhetoric was somewhat alarmist, and that there were more continuities in the document than deviations. Clearly not an avid reader of this blog or SNA, the Chinese government seemed to think otherwise. They particularly took issue with the concern raised by the Japanese MOD regarding whether “civilian control” was really being observed in China. The MOD noted that the relationship between the CCP and the PLA was becoming more “complex,” which is far more generous than many China analysts, sympathetic or otherwise, would have been. Apparently however pointing this out was evidence of “militarists” having taken over the security agenda in Japan.

We got a crystal clear expression of why the MOD was right to raise this concern during the back and forth over the fire-control radar “painting” incident this week.

Not only did the Chinese offer a “no comment” when first asked, but in follow up questioning the Chinese MOFA admitted (日) that the first they knew of the issue was when the Japanese government announced it, and that it is necessary to ask the “responsible agency”「われわれも報道で知った。具体的な状況は承知しておらず、(別の)関連部署に聞いてほしい」!!

That is not going to be reassuring to the Japanese. At all.

Either the MOFA genuinely did not about this and is expressing its anger at PLA in a very bizarre and impotent way, or, the MOFA is playing a part in a cynical attempt to deflect international attention from a clear provocation deserving criticism. Either way it does not bode well.

Trust also that this incident is not a minor issue.

When the Japanese government recently wondered out loud whether it would employ the use of warning shots whenever a Chinese aircraft entered Senkaku airspace, this was seen as provocative. Fair enough, although we need to note two things. One, it was just talk and was always unlikely to go further than that and such talk was quietly discontinued- a sensible decision in my estimation. Two, while provocative and more a last resort, the use of warning flares, is, for better or worse, a relatively common way of of letting an aircraft and its pilots know that they are doing something utterly unacceptable.

The actual use of fire-control radar, for example, to express annoyance at MSDF vessels tracking Chinese vessels at a distance  in the East China Sea (3kms in this case) as some have suggested, is however, not part of any standard operating procedure or in the rules for peaceful maritime engagement. The last time something like this happened in 2005, when a  PLA(N) destroyer aimed its guns at an MSDF surveillance aircraft near the Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field, Japanese defense analysts remained touchy for some time. This is worse than that and it will certainly be in next year’s Defense White Paper. And as Kevin Maher notes  (日) in the Japanese media, again for better or worse, if this happened to a US vessel, then the Chinese vessel would not have a “few minutes” as it did with the MSDF vessel before the initiation of a forceful response.

The Chinese response to this is important for many in the security community in Japan, many of whom are level-headed and traditionally have not even been particularly antagonistic towards China. At least, certainly less so than some of Japan’s politicians. From the point of view of many in this community, an unfortunate diplomatic contrast will become obvious.

When Japan makes mere mention of using the provocative but “valid” option of firing warning flares to direct a Chinese government aircraft out of contested territory under Japan’s control, a high-ranking Chinese defense official comes out with nationalistic bombast along the lines of “if Japan were to dare using such an option around the Senkakus, we would not wait to see what the follow up would be.”

Japan retreats.

When a Chinese maritime vessel paints a MSDF vessel 3kms away with a fire-control radar on the open sea for a number of minutes, the MSDF performs “standard evasive maneuvers” like it is a training exercise, and retreats. The Japanese government thinks about it for a few days, collects data, and then makes a diplomatic protest. What will China’s response be? Obfuscation? Defiance? Apology? It will matter to many, and not just the public and the usual political suspects keen to exploit the issue for political gain.

The New PRC Documents on the Senkaku Islands

As noted in my fuller exposition of the developments over at Japan Security Watch, Jiji Press went big yesterday (日) with apparently revelations that the Chinese, according to the PRC’s own official documents, actually considered the Senkaku Islands to be part of Okinawa prefecture for some period of time, in contradiction of its position that it had always considered the islands to be part of Taiwan “Province”, even before the 1968 discovery of oil.

In short, the article notes that in a document produced in preparation for negotiations regarding the San Fransisco Peace Treaty, (which the PRC did not ultimately participate in due to not being invited, and its outcome rejected anyway due to its position on Taiwan), the PRC did not once use the current Chinese name for the islands (Diaoyu-tai), used the Japanese moniker on one occasion, and did not explicitly state that they should have been part of PRC China while also expressing doubts about whether the islands were part of Taiwan province rather than the Ryukyus. This could have not only implications for the consistency of the PRC position since 1949, but raises the possibility that Chinese “awareness” that the islands were effectively ceded along with Taiwan during the Treaty of Shimonoseki, or stolen by conquest, was not as robust, apparent or widespread as has been previously argued. That said, the documents are not likely to change anything in the short-term, although may embolden the Japanese to take a more proactive position on promoting the idea of ICJ resolution.