Tue, Mar 28, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Japan needs to re-think strategy

By James Holmes

Sino-Japanese relations have seen better days. In the past year Beijing and Tokyo have reproached each other for various sins, from textbooks purportedly whitewashing Japan's imperial past to rock-throwing Chinese mobs chanting anti-Japanese slogans. But there's more to it than historical grudges.

Power politics helps account for the fury on display in East Asia -- and it's power politics with a nautical tinge.

Both Japan and China -- ambitious yet resource-poor countries -- realize that their prosperity hinges on secure supplies of oil, gas and other raw materials.

These commodities travel overwhelmingly by sea. Indeed, commercial ships bound for Chinese and Japanese seaports ply the same shipping lanes.

Complicating matters, Tokyo and Beijing are feuding over nearby islands and undersea oil and gas deposits, especially in the East China Sea.

Geography may not be destiny, but it has certainly riveted Japanese and Chinese attentions on the same maritime expanses. Taiwan adjoins the most crucial of these sea lanes. It behooves Taipei to keep abreast of naval activities in nearby waters, especially when these activities figure to impinge on Taiwanese security interests.

Japan finds itself at a disadvantage in its maritime rivalry with China, despite its economic prowess and modern navy. For one thing, its Maritime Self-Defense Force, or JMSDF, is ill-configured to take on China's increasingly capable People's Liberation Army Navy.

To help the US Navy perform its missions in East Asian waters, Tokyo has developed impressive "niche" capabilities in areas such as anti-submarine warfare and mine-clearance operations.

While these capabilities give the composite US-Japanese naval force a decided edge in naval combat, the skewed Japanese fleet is ill-equipped to go it alone should situations arise that don't engage US interests.

It's tough to envision the US Navy, say, helping defend Japan's claim to the disputed Senkaku island chain and adjacent seas.

Washington would be loath to incur Beijing's wrath in a purely Sino-Japanese dispute, so if Tokyo wants to hold its own in East Asian waters, it needs to start thinking strategically about the oceans.

It needs to plan a more balanced JMSDF to support its political and strategic objectives. And it needs to do so now.

Unfortunately for Tokyo, the habit of strategic thought has atrophied in the Japanese armed forces, including the JMSDF. By most accounts China has a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish at sea, the strategy it needs to realize its nautical ambitions and the forces it needs to execute the strategy.

Not so Japan. This does not bode welll for the JMSDF's competitiveness. The JMSDF's strengths in minesweeping and anti-submarine operations may not be enough.

The decay of strategic thought was a long time in the making, and it was another downside of the US-Japanese security partnership. Pre-World War II Japanese naval strategists studied not only their own history -- the Imperial Japanese Navy had crushed Chinese and Russian battle fleets in recent memory -- but also Western naval history and the works of Western sea-power theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan.

From their studies, Japanese sea-power thinkers fashioned a "southern strategy" predicated on wresting control of Southeast Asian energy resources (and territory) from the Western imperial powers and controlling the sea lanes that, then as now, represented Japan's economic lifeline. They managed to sway the imperial government to their way of thinking. Once Tokyo embarked on a southern strategy, conflict was nigh on inevitable.

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