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Military Outlook on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Dispute

Japan Senkaku 1

Rightwing protest poster (SNA)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — The debate on the meaning of Article 9 of the Constitution is once again making headlines. Beyond the proposals for reinterpretation, and even formal amendment, we can observe yet again practical policy moves crossing its boundaries. In part, these moves reflect the always difficult distinction between defense and offense. Another line which may be shifting is that between self-defense and collective defense. We can currently observe this in at least three areas: amphibious operations, the establishment of foreign bases, and missile defense.

As to amphibious operations, these may at first sight appear to be clearly offensive. After all, whoever engages in them is trying to take control of land from another power.

However, things can be a bit more complex. First of all, the land in question may not be under de facto occupation by another power, even if it formally lays claim to it. Second, the territory where the landings take place may have been previously lost to another country, with an amphibious operation being the way to try to recover it.

We may observe this ambiguity in policy vis-a-vis the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China under the name Diaoyu and by Taiwan as the Diaoyutai. Although Japan considers them to be part of its national territory, Tokyo has chosen not to deploy any land forces, or even allow any kind of permanent civilian presence on them.

On the other hand, the Japan Coast Guard is deployed around the islands and regularly engages Chinese quasi-military maritime agencies disputing Tokyo’s effective control over the islands. The result has been a number of incidents featuring the employment of water cannons and boat collisions, while lately Beijing has started to occasionally use aircraft as well.

Should Chinese forces occupy one or more of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, would amphibious or airborne operations by Japan to repossess them fall within the scope of Article 9? Or would they constitute “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” out of bounds under Japan’s highest law? Linked to this question comes another one: Would the United States be bound to support such military operations under its treaty of alliance with Japan?

Washington’s current position is to avoid expressing any views on the sovereignty of the islands, while rejecting the use of force to settle territorial disputes.

Some years ago there was some ambiguity, and even conflicting official statements, as to whether or not the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands fell within the territory of application of the US-Japan Security Treaty. However, it now seems clear that they do. Thus a possibility for the United States would be to provide military support to Japan in the event of a Chinese takeover, while stating that the goal was simply to restore the status quo ante, without prejudicing a final decision on sovereignty.

But it may not be that easy for the United States to actually participate in amphibious operations to repossess the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, should such a scenario unfold.

First of all, China is a nuclear weapons power. Its arsenal may be much smaller than that of the United States, but there is a reason why nuclear arms are called an “equalizer” in international affairs. One does not need to have as many as one’s neighbor in order to deter him. That is, Beijing does not need to even approach US numbers of nuclear weapons in order to prompt American leaders to think more than twice about risking a direct military clash which could lead to escalation. A policy of “minimum deterrence” is precisely what Beijing has been following in the nuclear realm over the last few decades.

Second, even leaving aside the nuclear factor, confronting Chinese conventional forces as well is not a decision that anybody would take lightly.

Third, there are extensive trade and investment links between the two largest economies in the world, and there is an appreciable risk that any open confrontation could trigger a global recession. Writing for Reuters, Harvard Professor Noah Feldman recently noted that the two economies were “entwined” and that “trade between the two rivals remains robust.” While he cautioned that “[m]utual ownership of significant corporate assets across borders doesn’t miraculously guarantee peace, nor can it make conflict disappear overnight… it gives both sides the incentive to manage geopolitical conflict.”

On the other hand, the United States must also take into account the risks of inaction; the possible negative consequences of not supporting Japan should Tokyo launch military operations to repossess the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. This could prompt a crisis in bilateral relations and lead to the questioning of the main pillar of Japanese postwar defense policy: its treaty with America. Should such a scenario unfold, Tokyo may decide to redouble efforts to rearm, this time going beyond weapons systems considered to be “defensive.” Ultimately, Tokyo may decide that an America not ready to run the risk of a conventional conflict would be even less ready to put its own cities in danger during a nuclear crisis. That would finally provide an answer to the old question of whether or not Washington was ready to risk Los Angeles in order to protect Tokyo, thus opening the doors to the development of an independent Japanese nuclear arsenal.

Japan is already considered by experts to be a “latent nuclear weapons power” with the necessary technical expertise, fissile materials, technological and industrial basis, and financial resources to take the step.

Although not explicitly referring to nuclear weapons, the Project 2049 Institute published a report this year by Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, saying that in “challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands… China is testing the credibility of the US-Japan Alliance.”

The ripples could also be felt beyond Japan’s shores, with many other American partners and allies asking themselves whether the decades-old assumption that they could count on US support was still in place.

Alternative policies could range from unilateral rearmament to bandwagoning with regional powers, including also alternative alliances. Beyond the geopolitical and military spheres, the role of the US Dollar may also be at stake, since an unwritten pillar of the world financial system is that the sole superpower enjoys a great deal of latitude in its economic policy in exchange for guaranteeing the security on which that same system rests. This may well not take place at once, but if followed by similar cases, involving the Philippines for example, it could well start a trend.

Torn between these conflicting factors, perhaps Washington’s most likely course of action would be to provide substantial support to Japanese forces, short of direct deployment of combat troops and assets.

This would be dependent upon Tokyo’s response, however. A clear, unequivocal reaction may tip Washington’s hand, leaving the United States with little choice but to support its ally. On the other hand, a delayed, inconclusive Japanese reaction, giving time for China to consolidate its hold over the islands may close the window of opportunity for military action, leading to prolonged negotiations.

It is quite possible that the kind of operations that Beijing may have in mind are quick and relatively bloodless, leading to an improved strategic situation and sapping Japan’s will to stand up against them. In an article on “How China Fights,” Professor Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, stressed China’s penchant for short, surprise “battles with a swift outcome” (su jue zhan), designed to “teach a lesson” to “adversaries so they will dare not challenge Beijing’s interests in the future.”

Should Tokyo decide to counterattack, and should Washington choose to support Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), this could ironically be seen to some extent as a reversal of the initial assumptions underlying the US- Japan Alliance; namely that in the event of a shooting war (at that time with the Soviet Union) it would be the Americans doing the direct fighting, with the Japanese providing support. This was not just a theory, but rather put into practice during the Korean War, where Allied operations relied to a great extent on logistical support from Japan and US bases on Japanese soil.

Still, the nature of the alliance and the distribution of tasks between Washington and Tokyo has always been dynamic, with Japan gradually taking a greater burden in key aspects such as sea lane protection. Furthermore, recent years have seen the United States place greater reliance on regional allies, sometimes taking a back seat and providing logistical support behind the scenes, not secretly, but letting others into the spotlight. This was the case in the Western intervention in Syria, in French-led operations in Mali, and more recently in the British public warning to Spain not to employ force to prevent a Catalan referendum.

While this is probably not the only motivation, we are already witnessing a development which would fit with this possible course of action: the joint training of US Marines and SDF in amphibious operations off Camp Pendleton in California. Held in June, the “Dawn Blitz 2013” multinational drill featured three Japanese warships, 250 GSDF troops, and seven Japanese combat helicopters.

The exercise was also part of the transformation and reorientation of the SDF, which are broadening the range of operations they are able to execute. A SDF spokesman explained that, “The exercise is aimed at improving the integrated operation capabilities of the SDF and maintaining and improving bilateral capabilities with the US military.”

Another joint exercise took place in Guam last September, albeit on a much smaller scale, involving only 40 GSDF personnel.

According to Tetsuo Kotani, Japan’s participation in Dawn Blitz 2013 is “the first step” for the country to assume its own amphibious capabilities. Although, as usual, participants refrained from making any comment that could be interpreted as an explicit reference to China, there are not that many scenarios where Japan would ever need such capabilities, apart from either the repossession of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands or to support nations like the Philippines, also involved in maritime territorial disputes with Beijing.

Furthermore, the joint US-Japan amphibious drills are relevant on least in three counts. First of all, as discussed earlier, amphibious operations may be seen at least to some extent as inherently offensive, or at least as going beyond passive defense. Second, they have not been undertaken before now. Third, they broadly coincide with the entry into the Japanese political narrative of references to the Falklands conflict: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned the 1982 war in an address to the Diet.

Taking all the above developments together, they could be understood as a warning to Beijing not to resort to force and also as preparing for that contingency should it actually take place.

The development of an amphibious capability by Japan may lead to increased tensions, but it may also signal Tokyo’s determination not to be coerced, thus prompting a more pragmatic approach by Beijing, ultimately leading to an agreement.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.