The Senkaku Islands are once again emerging as a hotspot in the Western Pacific region. Indications of new tensions between China and Japan have risen to the surface since the beginning of 2021. In January, the National People’s Congress passed a law allowing Chinese coastguard vessels to use ‘all necessary means’ to stop foreign vessels from illegally entering Chinese waters, including the use of weapons. Since then, China’s coastguard has expanded its presence in the waters around the islands- known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and Diaoyu Islands in China. Last year, Chinese coastguard vessels entered the contested waters an average of twice a month in 2020 to at least twice a week in February, 2021.
The new law, coupled with the rise in activity by Chinese ships, is causing concern in Tokyo. The Japanese government is presently, according to sources, considering a response. Japan is not looking to escalate the situation. The game plan for the moment appears to be to increase the diplomatic pressure on China, however, Japan has made it clear it will protect the islands, as well as Japanese fishing boats in the surrounding waters.
In late February, a pair of Chinese coastguard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters and approached a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku chain. A Japanese patrol vessel was called to provide escort for the Japanese boat and warn off the Chinese ships. Japan’s defense ministry also noted that around the same time there were two other Chinese vessels, one apparently armed with an autocannon, cruising nearby, right on the edge of Japan’s territorial waters.
In spite of the Japanese government’s to improve relations with China, public opinion in Japan has turned decidedly against China. The COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese posturing near the Senkaku Islands, and the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have combined to create an anti-China mood in Japan. That could become a factor which influences Tokyo’s future actions if Sino-Japanese tensions escalate in the near future.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he will be stepping down in the near future due to a worsening intestinal condition. Abe, who has held his position since 2012 will stay in office until a successor is chosen. That task will probably be completed in the coming weeks. The Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is a member, controls a majority in the Diet and has the power to make the choice.
Abe leaves as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His resignation will bring about significant ramifications for Japan, East Asia, US foreign policies, and defense strategies in the region. Abe left his stamp on Japan. A conservative nationalist, he came to power promising to kickstart Japan’s near-flatlining economy at the time, and counter China through assertive foreign policy, and strengthened Japanese military. “I’ve realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said during an interview in 2013, not long after taking power. “There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. It shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view.”
Abe sought, and cultivated closer ties with the United States during his time as prime minister. He was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump after the 2016 election. Although the two leaders differed on trade issues, and Japan shouldering some of the cost of stationing 50,000 US troops in its country, countering China’s rising power was an area where the two leaders found common ground.
As the news of the prime minister’s resignation spreads around Asia it will be interesting to see how China responds. With Abe now a lame duck for the next few weeks, will Beijing decide the time is right to challenge Japan over the Senkaku Islands perhaps?
Today the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) activated Japan’s first marine unit since World War II. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) has come into being to help Japan meet the evolving security situation in that part of the world. The troop strength of the brigade will be around 2,1000 troops, NCOs, and officers. It’s equipment will include V-22 Ospreys, and AAV7A1 amphibious landing vehicles. Although a brigade in name, the ARDB more closely resembles a US Marine Expeditionary Unit in size, organization and capabilities.
The main role of the marine unit will be to retake islands from an occupying force. In recent years Japan and China have seen a rise in tensions over Japanese islands at the edge of the East China Sea. As access to the Western Pacific becomes more of a priority for China, Japan is not taking the potential threat likely. Chinese military capabilities continue to increase and Japan is making strides in its own rearming process. The ARDB marks a significant increase in Tokyo’s ability to defend its most exposed territories.
Creation of the marine unit has brought controversy too. Amphibious and expeditionary forces have the capability to project power far beyond a home nation’s borders. Japan’s post-World War II constitution renounces the nation’s right to wage war. Japan’s neighbors could point to the creation of the ARDB as a provocation if they wanted.
In any case, Tokyo’s rearmament is moving at full speed ahead. The Japanese Self Defense Forces are loading for bear….or dragon, as the case may be.
The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
After a passionate, and at times contentious debate, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, has passed a law expanding the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces abroad. The law allows Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since the end of World War II. The change is dramatic for a nation with a constitution based on the premise of pacifism.
The Self-Defense Forces will be permitted to provide limited defense capabilities for allies in conflicts outside of Japanese territory. An example would be intercepting a missile launched from North Korea that is bound for US territory in the Pacific, or for the US mainland. North Korea does not have the ability to hit CONUS right now, however, some of the missiles in their inventory can reach US bases on Guam. Another situation could be providing logistical support for US forces in Korea in the event of a Second Korean War. Japan would be unable to commit troops to a conflict in Korea, its constitution still prohibits that.
The national debate on expanding Japan’s military is bringing large numbers of students out to opposition demonstrations. Student protests are not common in Japan. Unlike their counterparts in South Korea, most Japanese students have remained detached from politics. This issue is so big, though, it is drawing in people from every facet of Japanese society. One fear the opposition has is that the new law will draw Japanese forces into US led wars in other areas of the world. This was not the point of crafting the bill.
Supporters of the change argue that the era of a hands-off, isolationist Japan is over and the role of the Self-Defense Forces has to be modified. The rise of China’s military power and its assertive attitude in the Asia-Pacific region are two primary reasons for concern. The US is firmly behind Japan’s new role. It adds a new dimension of cooperation to the US-Japan military relationship and serves as an reminder that US concerns about China’s recent actions and behavior are not unilateral. The Obama administration has struggled to put together a cohesive response in Asia. Japan’s move will help bring one about.
Tomorrow, Part Two of the Week in Review will cover new happenings in the European humanitarian crisis as well as Syria. I hope everyone is enjoying the weekend.