Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun recently reported that Japan and the US were going to consult one another on drawing up joint operation plans to prevent China from using military force to seize the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan.
If the report is true, this development not only upsets the “balance of terror” that has existed between China and Japan since last year, but also dismantles the “dual deterrence” strategy that forms part of the US policy of rebalancing toward Asia.
Following the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyutais, the two countries got stuck in a deadlock in the form of a “balance of terror.” For its part, the US has adopted a dual deterrence strategy over the dispute. The US does not want Japan to do anything that could escalate military conflict, but it is also strengthening the US-Japan alliance so as to deter China from taking further military action. Evidently, dual deterrence has become an important element in the US policy of rebalancing toward Asia.
Although Japan would like to break out of its confrontation and deadlock with China by getting the US involved in the Diaoyutai dispute, the US has stuck to its dual deterrence strategy by neither intervening or taking sides.
However, recently cracks have been appearing in the “balance of terror” deadlock between China and Japan, and this is causing the US’ dual deterrence strategy to disintegrate.
In January, a Chinese navy ship allegedly locked its fire-control radar onto a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force corvette. This action signaled a departure from what was originally a non-military confrontation between China and Japan, and it gives the impression that seizing the Diaoyutai Islands by force has become part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s rules of engagement.
This development has made the US anxious and left it no option but to strengthen the US-Japan alliance by switching from the preventive deterrence to targeted deterrence.
The decision by Japan and the US to formulate joint operation plans with regard to the Diaoyutai Islands has two military implications.
First is that the defensive scope of the US-Japan alliance has been elevated from covering incidents arising in Japan’s periphery to including those that could occur in Japan itself.
Whereas previous operational plans were mostly concerned with peripheral areas such as the Taiwan Strait, this would be the first operational plan to be directly concerned with an attack on a specific area of Japanese territory.
If military conflict breaks out between China and Japan in the vicinity of the Diaoyutai islands, the US would be obliged to engage in joint operations with Japan.
The second implication is that the role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces is changing from logistical support to the use of armed force. Under the framework of the US-Japan alliance, the Japan Self-Defense Forces have in the past generally played a logistical support role, but this time they could engage in joint military operations with US armed forces.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office, he made a call to amend Article 9 of Japan’s constitution to allow Japan to engage in collective defense. The reason he gave for this was that Japan does not have a first-strike counterstrike ability, so if it suffers an external attack on its territory, the US armed forces would have to intervene militarily. However, the joint operations plan currently under consideration shows that the US has long since had its hands tied by Japan.
Tsai Zheng-jia is division head of the Second Research Division at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Julian Clegg