By Tetsuo Kotani
China’s growing maritime power is changing the strategic balance among Asian powers. The continental power of Russia, China, and India dominates the Asian landmass, while the maritime power of the United States and Japan secures freedom of the seas in the western Pacific. Neither side has traditionally been able to project substantial conventional power into the realm of the other. Now, however, the development of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities is challenging U.S.-Japan maritime supremacy in the Asian littoral.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan adopted its first National Security Strategy (NSS), which outlines Japan’s intent to make a “proactive contribution to peace.” Abe is also upgrading Japan’s security policy through the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC) and the revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). One of the outcomes of the interaction between China’s naval buildup and the U.S. rebalance is the realization that Japan needs to take greater responsibility for security in Northeast Asia.
Tokyo now aims to balance the rise of China through strategic diplomacy and to reinforce deterrence toward China by setting up a “dynamic joint defense force” to defend the Nansei Islands in the southwest of the Japanese archipelago.
The concept of a dynamic joint defense force is not new. The December 2010 NDPG emphasized the defense of the Nansei (Southwestern) Islands to meet challenges from China’s growing military power. The document, reflecting the changing regional and global security environment, also abandoned the decade-long “static” defense posture and introduced a new concept of “dynamic defense” that envisioned an increased operational level and tempo for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).
Calling for further integration of the JSDF, the dynamic joint defense force is an updated version of the dynamic defense force. Through the dynamic joint defense force, the JSDF will be strengthened in both quantity and quality. Since the defense of the Nansei Islands requires air and maritime superiority, the dynamic joint defense force envisions active and regular surveillance for seamless responses to “gray zone scenarios,” crises situated between peacetime and wartime. Japan plans to introduce the next-generation P-1 patrol aircraft, additional 19,500-ton helicopter-equipped destroyers (DDHs), and unmanned aircraft to enhance surveillance capabilities. Ground-based radar systems in the Nansei Islands will also be enhanced, while early warning and fighter aircraft based at Naha Air Base will be reinforced.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is also increasing its capability to protect against small-scale invasions by strengthening intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare capabilities to defend Japan’s surrounding waters. The major area of responsibility for the JMSDF is the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea, or what Japanese naval strategists call the Tokyo-Guam-Taiwan Triangle. The new DDH is primarily an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platform, but it can also support amphibious operations. It could be a platform for vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in the future as well. The JMSDF also plans to introduce a new type of smaller, faster, multi-role combat ship that can operate in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat environments. In addition, the submarine fleet will be increased from 16 to 22 boats. Due to the lack of Chinese ASW capabilities, the expansion of the submarine fleet enhances sea-denial capability vis-à-vis the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Ground troops are still indispensable for the Nansei Islands defense. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) will become lighter and more mobile with Ospreys and light-armored vehicles that can be transported by air. The JGSDF will also have an amphibious unit with amphibious assault vehicles. Rapid deployment of combat troops, armored vehicles, airdefense units, and ground-to-ship missile launchers is a key enabler for the Nansei Islands defense.
The concept of a dynamic joint defense force makes strategic sense. In essence, it is a Japanese version of an A2/AD strategy along the Nansei Islands. The demonstration of an enhanced defense posture would send a deterrent message to Beijing. It also fits into a war-at-sea strategy to deter Chinese aggression. However, discouraging China’s low-intensity aggression in the gray zones remains a challenge. The Japanese Coast Guard, which will be reinforced by 2017, is the first responder to such gray zone challenges. Nevertheless, it will continue to be difficult to manage the situation in the East China Sea given China’s robust paramilitary ship building program. Moreover, China’s increased air operations in the vicinity of Japanese airspace pose an even tougher challenge.
China’s assertiveness in Japan’s southwestern front and the U.S. rebalance to Asia require Japan to take a proactive security role. Abe’s strategic diplomacy and the introduction of a dynamic joint defense force make strategic sense.
Mr. Tetsuo Kotani is a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and a visiting scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Kotani’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .