August 14, 2014

How Japan Can Raise Costs on Tailored Coercion in the East China Sea

By Alexander Sullivan

As a previous blog post alluded to, one of the goals of the first workshop in our Maritime Strategy Project, and indeed of the entire initiative, is to understand the drivers and objectives of Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, to describe existing and prospective efforts by various countries to impose costs for that assertiveness—in the case of the first meeting, by Japan in the East China Sea—and to assess the policy risks and costs associated with those ideas. On a panel moderated by Ely Ratner, Dr. David Finkelstein sketched the thinking behind China’s recent actions, while Professors Satoru Mori and Toshi Yoshihara spoke to what Japan is or could be doing, mostly in the security realm, to raise the costs of contesting the East China Sea for Beijing.

The discussion on China, kicked off by Dr. Finkelstein, outlined its maritime assertiveness in recent years as driven by newly intersecting trends. Chief among these is China’s overall economic growth based on exports and trade, which has both heightened its maritime vulnerabilities and given it the resources to seek greater security in its littoral. Principally this has taken the form of a vastly expanded and bureaucratically empowered military, especially the People’s Liberation Army Navy, focused on projecting power in the near seas. Nonetheless, China’s repeated high-level policy declarations that China should be a “maritime power” clearly encompass white-hulled constabulary capabilities and even PRC-flagged civilian vessels. The timing of the 2012 purchase of the leases to three of the Senkakus by Japan, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s accession as a leader intent on redressing China’s historical grievances during a period of historic improvement in cross-strait relations, only served to focus these new capabilities on achieving incremental gains vis-à-vis Japan. At present, according to Professor Mori, Beijing’s goal is an admission of a sovereignty dispute by Japan, but goalposts are likely to shift as Beijing’s capabilities change. Feeling that it can keep the United States at bay and even, at times, using the high profile of US-China relations to cajole Washington about restraining Tokyo, the PRC has been pushing on a rather open door. These are familiar themes for seasoned followers of these issues but bear recapitulation.

What, then, is Japan preparing to do to bolster its position and change the cost-benefit analysis in Beijing, and what could it do that is has not yet done? Efforts presently underway encompass both bureaucratic and policy adjustments to the employment of existing tools, and the expansion of Japanese capabilities. Taking the latter question first, Japan is developing new capabilities in the Self-Defense Force for “remote island defense” and related missions, along with a rebalancing of existing forces toward contested areas in the southwest of the archipelago. This includes the gradual buildup of three eventual amphibious groups with the help of the U.S. Marine Corps, who will have air and surface mobility through V-22 Osprey aircraft and amphibious landing vehicles purchased from the United States, as well as potential new amphibious warships. New intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms for broad-area maritime surveillance and airborne warning/command and control assets will augment Japan’s domain awareness, while new submarines, destroyers, and fighters will support maritime and air superiority. All of these capabilities will be employed in a more joint manner, for example between ground service tactical air controllers and fighters operated by the Air Self-Defense Force.

In the policy realm, Japan is preparing to use its increased muscle in new ways to respond to gray-zone situations, that is, the ambiguous, not-quite-peace-and-not-quite-war tactics that China has been deploying. New procedures are being prepared to authorize JSDF responses to uncertain situations without the bureaucratic maze that characterizes Japanese national security crisis management at present. This way, Japan can hopefully cut down on the first mover advantage associated with putative Chinese moves and plan for more flexibility. Finally, of course, Japan is knitting the bonds of the U.S.-Japan alliance ever closer, including through the limited exercise of collective self-defense.

Given that Japan is likely to continue operating with cautious restraint overall, these moves would seem to strengthen the responses to the crisis of today, both through capabilities and new policies. But could Japan be doing more to arrest the long-term tilt of the military balance in Beijing’s favor? In a forthcoming paper, Professor Yoshihara lays out some ideas for doing so, principally through naval cost-imposing strategies. I won’t attempt to replicate his analysis, but the thrust of the idea is that Japan possesses key competencies that happen to mirror some of the PLAN’s greatest weaknesses, especially in anti-submarine warfare and mine operations. In addition, the geography of the southwest parts of the Japanese archipelago lends itself to a kind of guerilla warfare using mobile sea- and land-based firepower. Rather than attempting to compete symmetrically on mass—a race Japan cannot hope to win—Professor Yoshihara suggests prioritizing asymmetric approaches that turn China’s desired anti-access/area denial blanket over the East China Sea on its head, increasing allied freedom of movement in a contingency. Whether this will be acceptable to service and national leaders who have other ambitions remains to be seen.

One question raised during the meeting is: if Japan is successful, through its current efforts or those it has not yet tried, in creating a future in which the costs of contesting the East China Sea could rise for Beijing, could that create a “closing window” mentality that incentivizes China to change facts on the ground as soon as it can? While it is no excuse for not trying, success could engender the very breakdown of deterrence that Japan is trying to forestall.

Photo credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Webb