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Japan needs its own military power

Japan needs its own military power

Arthur Waldron

Professor of International Relations, University of Pennsylvania, US Department of Defense

Arthur Waldron, Professor of International Relations, University of Pennsylvania; Consultant, US Department of Defense:

- Given China’s apparent desire for the status of a serious military force, as well as the desire already demonstrated to use this status for the purpose of territorial expansion, Japan faced a two-part threat to national security. This problem cannot be put aside, as it was done several decades ago.

The first half of the threat is short-term. It consists in China's new policy to aggressively insist on its right to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. Some people think China is interested in energy deposits, but in my opinion, Beijing puts long-term strategic plans first - this is the second part of the threat.

At the moment, the growing Chinese fleet does not have convenient exits to the Pacific Ocean, except for those that are controlled by Japan or located near it. If China were able to seize the Senkaku islands and create a base there for their forces, this would lead to its military domination in this region and would enable it to send the fleet to an important strait separating southern Okinawa and the island of Miyako. Such an opportunity on the part of the Chinese side will threaten or even nullify Japan's control over the chain of islands ending with the Yonaguni Island (110 kilometers from Taiwan) while simultaneously threatening Okinawa as such.

The need will get a reliable outlet to the Pacific Ocean - the reason why the waters north of Miyako are constantly becoming the target of Chinese military activity. Senior Marine Intelligence Officer Captain James Fannell warned that China is preparing for a "short and vigorous war" with Japan to take over the Senkaku Islands, and perhaps more.

Such a probability may seem incredible, but Fannell is almost certainly right. The current approach of China is the concentration on short-term military operations that allow us to capture small territories, which Vietnam and the Philippines have already experienced. This approach is dangerous and irresponsible, as it can lead to a major war. Nevertheless, this is a fact.

In response, Tokyo took two steps. First, Japan is moderately expanding its own military forces - to the point at which, as the authorities believe, they will be enough to prevent China's annexation of any Japanese territories. This can be achieved not through a direct military conflict, but with the help of tactics to protect key areas and directions and to prevent Chinese military from entering there. Secondly, Tokyo counts on the United States as an ally, providing forces that Japan lacks.

I like the way Japan’s military response is designed: it’s limited, absolutely not provocative, and, at least in the short term, it has a high chance of success. I am less sure about the alliance with the United States. As I have mentioned more than once in other sources, a detailed study of the declassified materials of the times when President Nixon began to reestablish friendly relations with China suggests that then the US authorities were considering an option in which Beijing would become Washington’s main partner in Asia - with an uncertain status of Japan.

The United States has signed a security treaty with Japan, which has so far been faithfully observed. However, the voices of those who consider cooperation with China a higher priority compared with the US-Japanese relations are heard louder and louder. In the event of a real conflict between China and Japan, I fear that Washington will seek a compromise position without supporting either side. This would mean not a full-fledged assistance from Japan, but pressure on Tokyo in order to search for its compromise with China. In the case of the Senkaku Islands, this means it is likely that Japan will remain alone.

Political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan took this very position. The unilateral condemnation of the US visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to the sanctuary of Yasukuni (dedicated to the fallen soldiers - ed.), Moreover, not balanced by references to provocative Chinese rhetoric and state-sponsored anti-Japanese demonstrations, is yet another signal of a potentially volatile American position.

To what conclusion do we come? It's simple. Japan must have its own armed forces to defend its territory, regardless of what the US will do.


Imagine that the tactics described above will be sufficient to protect the territory of Japan and other Asian countries threatened by China. This forces us to ask ourselves a second question: how long will this approach remain effective?

The most likely answer is about ten years, during which China will continue its military development to achieve such power, which will be able to crush such systems of protection. As for US military power in the same ten years, it will constantly decrease.

At the moment, the United States can afford to wage only one war. This means that if China comes out against Japan or another neighbor at a time when Washington will be linked, for example, in the Middle East, there will be no help from the United States or it will come on a very limited scale, since the overwhelming part of the resources will be involved elsewhere.

Ideally, these ten years, during which China will work on military superiority, should be spent on conflict prevention. It cannot be achieved with the help of concessions, which only spur Beijing’s ambitions. Presumably, negotiating and signing contracts that you can rely on can solve this issue. However, I am very skeptical of such an opportunity.

In ten years, China will own a huge arsenal of weapons - both conventional and nuclear. Since the Second World War, Japan and other US allies in the region relied on American forces and counted on deterrence as the main guarantor of security. More specifically, they rely on the American promise to use nuclear weapons in the interests of others, given that the United States can be vulnerable to a retaliatory nuclear strike. My view of this promise is this: no US president will give an order to use nuclear weapons, unless the country is first struck first.

This point of view is shared by two US ally - Great Britain and France. Neither one nor the other does not count on US protection in the event of a potential nuclear attack, and each of these countries has its own system of nuclear deterrence. The British have three nuclear submarines of the "Vanguard" class, each of which has on board thermonuclear warheads. One of these submarines is always in the sea, it can not be found, and it is capable of inflicting a devastating blow on any enemy that attacks the UK. France supports comparable forces. Such deterrence makes both these countries immune from attacks.

It should be clearly understood that the anti-missile system, the Japanese version of which is probably the most advanced in the world, cannot provide such security, which France and England guarantee themselves. Defense systems do not work so effectively as to stop a nuclear attack.

These facts, coupled with the fact that hostile China is strengthening its military and nuclear capabilities, pose Japan to problems that it is not accustomed to solve, very important from the political point of view, absolutely real and inevitable.

The conclusion, although very complex, is clear. China threatens, US deterrence is a myth, anti-missile defense measures are not appropriate for the mission. If Japan wants to live in safety, it must use the next years to develop the entire spectrum of independent military forces, including minimal opportunities for nuclear deterrence, like those possessed by the United Kingdom, France and other countries.

Without this, Japan will sooner or later face a conflict with a larger and nuclear-armed aggressor, while it will have neither its own counterbalancing forces nor reliable allies. For Japan, this can be the worst nightmare.

The original is published on the Nikkei Asian Review website, pMikhail Botvinnik exclusively for

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