The Empire of the Sun to test the Dragon

In fact, the complexity of relations with Beijing obliges Tokyo to look very closely at the increase in Chinese military spending. Several issues of friction, although they have not prevented the development of a growing economic interdependence between the two countries in recent years, have however made Sino-Japanese relations particularly sensitive and at risk of rapid deterioration.

First, there is the problem of historical memory and the Japanese colonial past. The memory of Japanese aggression in China is still strong, and often threatens to inflame a now growing Chinese nationalism, particularly in the absence of an admission of liability by Tokyo. Thus, for example, under Junichiro Koizumi’s government (LDP, 2001-2006), the decision of the former Japanese Prime Minister to make an annual visit to Yasukuni shrine – which houses the remains of the heroes of the Japanese imperial history, but also many war criminals – sparked lively popular protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in China and froze political relations between Tokyo and Beijing for the duration of the Koizumi administration.

Second, there is the territorial dispute over a group of islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by the Chinese. Located in the eastern China Sea, they are currently controlled by Japan but sovereignty over them is also claimed by Beijing (and Taiwan). Although, as stressed by Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo, control of this group of islands is not particularly relevant from a purely strategic point of view, their sovereignty is an issue of great symbolic, economic, political and historical importance. Since 1968, when oil prospectors found evidence of probable oil and gas deposits off the islands, periodic incidents there have caused some tense moments. These incidents did not degenerated into open conflicts thanks to the will of both parties not to unnecessarily stir up a violent military escalation. The last skirmish occurred in September 2010, when after a collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a reconnaissance ship from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) the Chinese boat captain was arrested and detained for more than two weeks, causing the most serious diplomatic incident between Tokyo and Beijing in recent years and unleashing harsh official protests from Beijing, with serious threats of economic and political reprisals. This episode was the last of the red flags which has contributed to an increase in Tokyo’s perception that China is demonstrating a growing assertiveness.

Accordingly, the Guidelines are unquestionably a supporting document Japan will use to react to China’s military rise. To overcome institutional limits and budget constraints affecting military expenditure, Tokyo proposes a qualitative change of strategy rather than an increase in the quantity of its armed forces. First, it establishes the principle of “dynamic” defense, which should enable the JSDF to react with greater mobility, flexibility and readiness to possible military contingencies. To this end, there will be attempts to purchase a new tactical transport aircraft, probably the C-2 Kawasaki, with a capacity almost four times greater than that of the old C-1.

In addition, Japan has long sought a jet fighter with stealth technology (a so-called “invisible” aircraft) to replace the American F-15 Eagle which is now technologically outdated, especially when compared to the Soviet SU27 (manufactured under license from Beijing). Tokyo has repeatedly expressed its intention to acquire the U.S. F22 – probably the most powerful and advanced fighter-bomber in production – although Washington does not seem willing to authorize its sale. Therefore, the addition of new armaments to the F-15 and F-2 is planned ,while the search for a new stealth jet fighter of Japanese manufacture continues. The capacity and mobility of Land Forces will be improved by the introduction of the new and advance main battle tank TK-X MBT, which is lighter and easier to carry. The creation of a committee within the Cabinet responsible for coordinating all the units of the JSDF has also been announced.

From the standpoint of ballistic defense, this year will see the final phase of the U.S.-Japan joint project for the installation of an advanced missile interception system on Japanese destroyers. This is currently the largest item in the defense budget. As for naval forces, the submarine fleet will increase from 16 to 22 units – a move unofficially announced two months before the publication of the Guidelines – with the aim of improving its ability to control the eastern China Sea, in what appears to be a clear response to Chinese naval activities.

Finally, it must be remembered that an increasing role is being given to the Japan Coast Guard, the protagonist in the last September incident and  a paramilitary force whose functions of monitoring and controlling the south-eastern seas have grown in recent years. It has many vehicles at its disposal and it acts almost as a second naval force.

More generally, it is noted in several parts of the Guidelines that there is a need to strengthen the Japanese military projection capability in south-west Asia and to change the structure of Japan’s Cold War era Armed Forces. The latter have to respond with more incisiveness to the challenges of the combustible region of East Asia, where the rise of China represents, at least in the eyes of Japanese strategists, the most serious threat in the long run. This, along with other major causes of regional instability such as the issues of North Korea and Taiwan and the uncertain role of U.S. leadership in the near future, has helped to nurture a sense that Japan is being encircled and has made Tokyo aware of the need to reconsider its international posture and defensive strategy.

In the final analysis, however, the Guidelines are a mostly symbolic step to boosting Japan’s security and defense. The deterrence effect of the new NDPG may be minimal. The announcement made by Naoto Kan on January 6, 2011 that he wants to set up a committee of experts to mend relations with China shows that if the two East Asian most powerful states manage to contain their excesses of nationalism and territorial aspiration, the high degree of economic interdependence between the two countries will make open Sino-Japanese military confrontation very unlikely, at least in the mid-term.