Small Wars Journal

Japan gives China a new strategic complication

According to the New York Times, the Japanese government will soon release new defense policy guidelines that will redirect its military's primary attention away from the Russian threat from the north and toward the Chinese threat from the south. The new defense guidelines will also direct Japan's military forces to improve their coordination with the United States, Australia, and South Korea. Japan's shift toward China is a response to what it sees as the more ominous threat. What China's leaders need to ponder is whether their more assertive policies are actually improving China's security.

Japan's defense ministry will take several actions to implement the new guidelines. Japan will slightly reduce its investments in armor and artillery (needed for the northern defense scenario) and redirect funding into naval and air power and air-mobile ground forces. Japan will increase its submarine force from 16 to 22 boats. The defense and rapid reinforcement of the Senkaku islands, the site of a clash three months ago between the Japanese coast guard and a rogue Chinese fishing boat, will now be a top priority of Japanese defense planning.

Japan is already taking steps to implement the forthcoming guidelines. It has deployed a 100-solider detachment to Yonaguni Island, Japan's westernmost outpost. Japan intends to use the island for surveillance of Chinese naval forces. In addition, Japan and the United States just completed Keen Sword 11, a seven-day training exercise involving over 40,000 personnel, 400 aircraft, 60 ships, and missile defense batteries. It was the largest bilateral military exercise the two countries have ever conducted.

In the years ahead, China can now expect to face a more persistent and more intrusive Japanese military presence in the East China Sea. This presence will include new ground defense garrisons on many of the Senkaku Islands, more Japanese submarine patrols, more surveillance of Chinese naval activities, and more exercises in the East China Sea with the USS George Washington carrier strike group and other elements from U.S. Pacific Command.

Japan appears to be changing its posture in the Senkaku island chain from a light coast guard presence to an active military defense. It is no coincidence that this change is occurring just as China's fleet and air force are expanding. China's leaders will have to assess whether the more assertive policies they have adopted of late are actually resulting in greater security for China.