World Naval Developments – June 2014, by Norman Friedman
Late in June Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would modify its military policy to make contributions to collective defence permissible.
In the past, the ‘Peace Constitution’ has been interpreted to prohibit anything but direct self-defence, which is why the Japanese military is the Self-Defence Force (at one time even the right to self-defence was questioned by some Japanese). Mr. Abe outlined four possible scenarios for such action, including assisting the United States against both ballistic missile attack and attacks on US warships.
The idea of collective defence goes much further. It might include the creation of a Far Eastern collective defence organization of like-minded governments. The Japanese have already decided that they can sell arms to countries not engaged in war. The combination of Mr. Abe’s declaration and the arms sales decision might enable Japan to build a kind of Far Eastern NATO. That would not be irrational for the Japanese, considering that Japan depends heavily on seaborne traffic, much of it moving through South Asian waters.
For some time proponents of a more active Japanese military stance have pointed out that modern technology makes it more and more difficult to distinguish between offense and defence, and between defence mounted entirely from Japanese soil and collective defence in more forward areas. For example, many of North Korea’s missiles seem to be aimed at Japan as much as at South Korea. However effective a Japanese missile defence shield may be, attacking some of these missiles at source might be a valuable form of defence.
Similarly, Japan depends on seaborne imports for her survival. Convoy operations may seem to be the appropriate form of defence, but it is not clear that they would be entirely effective against fast nuclear submarines. In that case, the best defence might be to attack the enemy’s submarines somewhere closer to their bases. Would such operations be offensive or defensive? If Japan’s US ally were conducting them, would Japanese participation be appropriate or even necessary? As Chinese military power grows, at what point should Japan take up more of the burden of measures which ultimately protect her?
The US government, which has long hoped that Japan would take a more active role in defending the Far East, applauded Abe’s action. Japan is already involved in the US ballistic missile defence program, and Japanese ships have participated in maneuvers alongside the US Navy. The Japanese have also provided valuable logistical support, for example in the Middle East. Japanese policy has gradually expanded the definition of direct defence of the country.
For example, Japan accepted that maritime defence had to extend out to at least 1000 nm, and that in turn justified the construction of helicopter-carrying destroyers, the latest of which are clearly helicopter (and perhaps STOVL) carriers. A realist contemplating the Chinese navy would have to point out that the potential threat to Japanese shipping includes missile-carrying bombers as well as submarines. During the Cold War the US Navy concluded that missile-armed surface ships were not enough to deal with the analogous Soviet threat. Carrier-borne fighters were essential. Japan may be edging towards building carriers. Would they be offensive or defensive? Is the distinction meaningful?
The Chinese were predictably furious at Mr. Abe’s announcement. Japan is the only Far Eastern country which has the resources to stand up to the growing Chinese military machine. If economics were the sole determinant in forming alliances, and if only a Chinese threat mattered, Japan would become the core of a Far Eastern alliance including India, Australia, and Korea.
Early in the Cold War the US Government tried to create a Pacific equivalent of NATO anchored on Japan. In fact, Japan was and is proportionately far more powerful in the Far East than Germany was and is in Europe. The idea failed because proposed alliance members (Australia and the Philippines) were more worried about a resurgent Japan than about the apparently more abstract threats posed by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Even South Korea, which really had felt the effect of Communist aggression, was unwilling to join with its former occupier. The brutalities of the past were just too close. As recently as 2012, the Korean government found that popular pressure blocked an agreement to share intelligence with Japan. The South Korean government was notably unhappy at Mr. Abe’s announcement.
The problem lies in the past, and in the uses different governments make of it. By the end of World War II, the Japanese were saying that they had fought a just war to liberate Asia from Western colonialism. Many of those they had liberated had fared rather badly during the war; the Japanese were at least as brutal as those they displaced. However, when the war ended, in some places the Japanese handed over power to anti-colonial movements. They can, for example, take considerable credit for the emergence of Indonesia and Vietnam as independent countries. This just-war message is displayed in detail at Yasukuni, the Japanese war memorial.
Those badly victimized by Japan during the war find this less than palatable. Wartime Japanese brutality may be explainable by the exigencies of war, but Koreans remember 40 years of Japanese colonial rule, culminating in horrific atrocities. In recent years they have been particularly infuriated by Japanese refusal to apologize for the forced prostitution of hundreds of thousands of Korean women during World War II.
The Chinese situation is no happier. World War II in the Far East began with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and then of China proper. In China the Japanese committed numerous atrocities, beginning with the Rape of Nanking. Ultimately the war cost at least 15 million Chinese lives. The struggle against Japan holds particular significance for the current Chinese Communist government. It has long used the war as a unifying national theme, claiming that the wartime Communists were particularly effective in resisting the Japanese. It seems that Chinese nationalism, as symbolized by the fight against Japan, has been promoted particularly actively in the quarter-century since the Tien-an-Men Square massacre (June 1989, with related massacres in other Chinese cities). It does not help that Prime Minister Abe has visited Yasakuni (despite, incidentally, US government advice not to go). The Japanese argue that Yasakuni is a privately-run museum and shrine, hence does not reflect official policy.
It seems unlikely that the Japanese will retreat under Chinese pressure. Presumably the Chinese are looking for ways to preclude the formation of a Japanese-led anti-Chinese alliance. They may see South Korean hatred for Japan as a valuable fulcrum. At one time, Koreans felt dependent on the United States to stave off the North Koreans. Given their very considerable economic strength, they are increasingly independent-minded. For example, for years US policy was deliberately to limit the ranges of South Korean missiles, for fear that the South Koreans might turn their attention to their old enemy, Japan.
In recent years the South Koreans have broken free of US-sponsored limits. Ironically, some of their missiles are described as relatives of Russian weapons; the Russians sold weapons to Korea because they owed South Korea so much hard currency. The irony is that Russia is also the main weapon supplier to North Korea. In 2015 South Korea is to take over command of the joint UN (mainly Korean and US) force in that country.
Reportedly the South Koreans are developing a pre-emptive concept called ‘Kill Chain,’ which they see as a deterrent against a North Korean attack. Anyone looking at the possibility of a Chinese-South Korean alignment might ponder the visit of the current Chinese President to Seoul without any visit to Pyongyang. In the past, Chinese Presidents have certainly visited Seoul – but they have been careful to visit North Korea first.
What should we do? We certainly do not want the Chinese to run us out of the Far East, as they appear to want to do. That requires that we reassure our friends in that vast area. We typically imagine that countries are either on our side, neutral, or hostile. That omits the possibility, which the Korean and Japanese cases illustrate so well, that countries friendly with us may wish to erase each other. We are already familiar with this sort of situation in the Middle East, but it is much more universal than we may imagine. How do we sustain a necessary degree of power in an area without being crippled by local enmities?
Air-Sea Battle proposals often include dispersal of US ground-based combat aircraft throughout the Far East, so that they are difficult to destroy on the outbreak of war. That may or may not be a very good idea. For example, dispersed aircraft entail disproportionately high support costs. Modern ground bases are not so easy to conceal, and they don’t move at high speed. What typically is not taken into account is the politics of such dispersal. Placing military assets on someone else’s soil requires his permission. Governments usually extract a veto on operations undertaken from their soil. In 1986, US bombers based in the United Kingdom were deployed in a strike against Libya. British permission apparently was not sought, and the result was a much-reduced US air footprint in the UK – and rules which made it impossible to repeat a unilateral strike.
Perhaps it is time to remember that our naval forces are sovereign territory, the only kind from which strikes of any kind can be mounted without someone else’s permission. Carrier battle groups are hardly inexpensive, but it is well to remember a history of governments denying us the use of bases on their territory. Again and again our experience has been that once we show that we can act unilaterally, other governments (in whose interest it would be to act) decide to join us. That was certainly the case during both Gulf Wars. When we applaud Mr. Abe’s initiative to join in collective defence, it may be well to understand that he may see participation as valuable leverage. To the extent that he provides essential support, he can help decide what we can and cannot do. The same might be said of others in the region, such as the Koreans.
*Norman Friedman is author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems