Japan, and China's rising eclipse of the sun?

If Japan has the will, China has the way. What happens when east Asia's giants get real about global security? Is Japan our indispensible ally? We'd better get an answer before it's too late

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Japan rising?
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Michael Auslin
On 5 December 2014 15:40

An interesting piece on the “War is Boring” website catalogs the quiet revolution in Japanese defense spending that may change perceptions of Asia’s military balance. For decades, of course, attention has been paid to China’s dramatic and comprehensive military modernization and build-up.

From a 1950’s-era armed forces to possibly the world’s second most powerful military, it has taken the Peoples’ Liberation Army  (PLA), along with its naval and air arms, just two decades of double-digit growth to become a major security concern of the United States.

Indeed, year after year, the Congressionally mandated China Economic and Security Review Commission warns about the steady developments in China’s naval, air, space, and ground forces. Buzzwords such as “anti-access/area-denial” enliven Washington think tank meetings, and are countered by grand sounding, but vague US ideas like “third offset strategy” or “Air-Sea Battle concept.”

Yet what matters is what is happening on the ground in Asia, and Japan is being steadily overlooked in the focus on China.

As the “War is Boring” piece relates, under embattled Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and his predecessor from the Democratic Party of Japan, Tokyo is going on a “buying spree,” confirming purchases of F-35 stealth fighters, buying the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and Global Hawk surveillance drone, upgrading its early warning aircraft, expanding its amphibious landing fleet, and building a second giant helicopter carrier, which I discussed in my column in the Wall Street Journal last week.

None of this is happening in a policy vacuum, however. Among others, Kyle Mizokami wrote for the US Naval Institute last December on Tokyo’s Mid-Term Defense Plan, which translates into procurement and force structure goals the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG).

The NDPG itself is now derived generally from the National Security Strategy, the first of which was released last year. Looking at the defense budget, it is clear that Japan remains the only Asian power that can field a full set of military capabilities, even if its numbers are far smaller than that of the United States or China.

Japan does not have to be Asia’s biggest military, but it can compete technologically with anyone. Its armed forces, especially the Ground Self-Defense Forces, may have far less experience than the South Koreans, but neither does the PLA have much recent ground experience.

Much of the battle in Asia remains focused on the air and sea domain. Integration of these domains with ISR is crucial, and Japan is rapidly moving to have what the Chinese call an “informationized” warfighting capability, one that will stand on its own for national defense purposes, but also potentially add significantly to the U.S. forces that are becoming stretched thin in Asia.

The main difference between Japanese and Chinese force structure is that China is focusing increasingly on offensive weapons, including ballistic missiles, while Japan remains firmly defensively oriented. That could change as it puts together a modest power projection force comprised of tankers, fighters, and its helicopter carriers, which could be converted fairly quickly to handle F-35s.

Although Japan’s Self-Defense Forces may be largely ignored by the rest of the world, Beijing well understands that its satellites, advanced submarines, F-35s, drones and the like make it a major regional force.

Such recognition is helping maintain a balance of power in Asia, at least for now, as China hesitates to push harder on its claims over the Senkaku Islands out of a decent respect for the Japanese military. Whether that remains the case beyond 2025 depends on America’s actions, Chinese plans, and Japanese resolve not find themselves unable to defend core national interests.

So far, Tokyo is on the right track, but with no decrease in Chinese military spending in sight, it is an increasingly uphill battle.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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