I made my genuine Thanksgiving on Oct. 27. The occasion was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s crushing victory in the Japanese election; the reason was a genuine, although perhaps erroneous, sense that we had been spared a potentially ghastly war in Asia by the rebalancing of regional power that victory brought.
Japan will now start deliberately rearming and aiding its neighbors, with the pace determined by China’s aggressiveness. If China does not abandon its current expansionist territorial policy, but rather attempts nuclear blackmail against its neighbors, at the end of the day, Japan will match that too, with its own nuclear force, checkmating China. This will bring an armed peace.
Since at least 1995, when it occupied the Philippine’s Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), China has been attempting to expand its territory to include Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” in Beijing’s terminology) in India and islands held by South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and others, as well as to take control of the entire South China Sea, twice as big as the Mediterranean Sea.
China calculated that no one would react seriously. It was emerging as the hegemon of Asia; others would recognize this fact (which might not be one) and doff their caps, but no more.
Certainly, the US would continue to do nothing. The administration of former US president Barack Obama had effectively done nothing while this attempt to transform the Indo-Pacific region was being carried out.
China is also seeking bases in Africa and elsewhere, with a view to controlling the key choke points in the international maritime transport network. This is Griff nach der Weltmacht (“grab for world power”) with Chinese characteristics. A continuation of such aggressive behavior will almost certainly lead to conflict, escalation and perhaps general war.
In 2010, sparks flew at the ASEAN summit, as then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a strong verbal condemnation. Then, in 2014, the Philippines filed a suit in The Hague, under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, the authority of which China has ratified and accepted.
Last year, the International Court of Arbitration found that all of China’s actions were illegal. However, China ignored the decision completely, continuing its expansive policy, assuming that it could divide its opponents, intimidating them above all with its immense military and nuclear capabilities.
This seemed to work. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, an erratic man, became president, and he began to come to terms with China. It became bad form to mention The Hague’s decision. Having torn up the international court’s decision, China looked set to create a fait accompli by flouting the law to use military intimidation instead.
The US began to take serious action with the new administration in office. When US President Donald Trump made his highly successful visit to Asia, he did not need to mention security, as an almost unprecedented three carrier strike groups were exercising in the seas nearby — message enough.
The US is far away, though, and not trusted by anyone to use nuclear weapons to defend them. That is why the UK and France, both allies, maintain at great expense their own independent nuclear deterrents, but Japan? It foreswore war in its constitution. Not only that, the US presented it as the “cork in the bottle” that would prevent Japanese armament.
The drastic changes that China started unilaterally, assuming Japan would dither, in fact focused that nation’s attention.
With Abe’s victory, we might expect Japan to become normal, which is to say possess a self-sufficient military capability including, if so pressed, nuclear weapons that will deter China and freeze its current policy.
A democracy, Japan can move only with the support of its people. China’s threats to its territory, as well as the firing of two North Korean ballistic missiles over the islands, contributed to Abe’s victory. Now, we can expect a carefully calibrated Japanese response that will match China at every stage.
What does Japan have now? Its self-defense force numbers at about 250,000. At present, it lacks any but defensive armaments. Even so, its advanced technological capabilities mean that it can develop any weapon it needs, as good as or better than the US systems on which it now largely relies. Japan does not steal technologies. It already has technologies.
The jewel in its crown is its small (19) submarine force. The Soryu-class is a conventional submarine so stealthy that the highly skilled Japanese anti-submarine forces can find only 5 percent of them when under way. They regularly sink US carrier escorts (using lasers) in war games.
More importantly, as retired Chinese general Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲), an adamant Japanophobe, has warned, in case of naval conflict today, the Japanese submarines could sink the entire Chinese East Sea fleet in about four hours. (Liu is also an outspoken advocate of democracy).
As the Japanese ambassador said to this author: “We are a shadow nuclear power.”
In other words, it might take them a week to create an arsenal.
Otherwise, Japan has a slightly obsolescent air force to which US F-35s are being added. More importantly, it has a prototype sixth-generation stealth fighter, the X-2 Shinshin.
Cynics say it is building this to force US prices down. That might have been correct in the past, but today it is building it so as to be self-sufficient in aircraft. I believe this will be a superb jet: Remember, not until 1943 did the US field a fighter that could down the Japanese Zero.
Japan has also been launching “information gathering satellites” since 2003. The most recent, launched earlier this year, is thought to have resolving power far superior to any other nation’s. Japan has enlarged its intelligence service. Particularly in cooperation with Taiwan, Japan will achieve intelligence dominance in the region.
What is missing?
Japan only has very short-range missiles. However, now it has undertaken a program to build a maneuverable missile having sufficient range and payload to pose a severe problem to any adversary, and a 1,609km-range missile nicknamed the “Japanese Tomahawk” about which we know very little.
Japanese speak of these as counterstrike missiles: in other words, to be used only after being attacked. However, nothing prevents their pre-emptive use.
Likewise, they are intended to be conventional. However, nothing prevents Japanese from unscrewing a conventional warhead and replacing it with a nuclear weapon.
In other words, Japan is on the threshold of becoming a regional great power, not capable of attacking or invading its adversaries, but of paralyzing them by means of its advanced military capabilities.
This fact transforms the Asian strategic situation. No longer will China be able to intimidate without fearing retaliation. The Hague decision will be proclaimed as justification and who can gainsay the legitimacy of that?
Japan will become an Asian alliance focus in the emerging alliance — “The Quad” of Australia, the US, India and Japan — hammered out, significantly, on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN conference in Manila, so far China’s chief target. Also, it will become a non-US source of advanced weaponry.
This last point — weapons supply — is particularly significant with respect to Taiwan. US policy has always been to keep Taiwan weak enough that China can imagine conquest, yet fulfill the letter of the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires it to supply defensive armament by selling mostly obsolete or unwanted systems at great profit to its defense contractors.
The loss of Taiwan, while it would be a crime against humanity, would not affect US security.
However, it would mortally threaten Japan, whose main islands are 1,300km away, while its closest small island, Yonaguni, is less than 115km from the east coast of Taiwan.
Japan and Taiwan are part of the same mostly submerged ocean mountain range, so we might expect Japan and Taiwan to cooperate in whatever ways are necessary to keep China at bay.
If the US continues to seek to please China even as it supplies Taiwan with inadequate equipment, it might expect Japanese systems to fill the gap — submarines, naval vessels, state-of-the-art aircraft — not to mention close intelligence cooperation. Taiwan is often thought of as a US issue. Look at the map, though. It is a Japanese issue.
Finally, we must speak of diplomacy. Japan is widely distrusted, although this is perhaps a myth. Even South Korea, which was tortured brutally by Japan during the period it was a colony (1910 to 1945), maintains a high level of day-to-day security interaction with Tokyo.
Japan’s diplomatic prowess is often underestimated, in part because Japan conceals it, but — particularly if aided by the US and other “Quad” powers — it will show great effectiveness. “The Quad,” which China never imagined, but was instrumental in creating as a counterbalance to its aggression, is more than a sufficient counterweight.
Note that China has created this situation for itself. It has no real allies: Does anyone expect Russia or Pakistan to go to war on its behalf? Rather, by making such vast territorial claims from India to Japan (with the Russian Primorsky Krai, which controls the Pacific coast of Eurasia), it has alienated, effectively, all its neighbors — here I include unstable Pakistan and opportunistic Russia — creating what political scientists would call a “countervailing coalition.”
The US’ greatest 19th-century general, Winfield Scott, might have called it “an anaconda” that China has created, but in the toils of which it now finds itself. This entanglement will render impossible China’s miscalculated policies.
Note too that without China’s aid or at least acquiescence, North Korea would not be able to command the attention or elicit the fear that it does now. It is a dependent variable in this larger change, which will undermine and weaken it. South Korea is furthermore high on the list of nuclear-capable states.
Actions elicit equal and opposite reactions, so Newton said. Clausewitz added that unlike physical reactions, those in conflict, being the product of the human mind, are entirely unpredictable. When it set out on its ill-conceived expansion program, China wrote off both Japan and the US. Now, they are at the heart of the game.
Of course, all of this could go wrong. The possibility of a war worse than any in history erupting in Asia remains with us. However, the developments outlined here render that less and less likely, while a cold and peaceful standoff looks more realistic.
If such should turn out to be the case, we might date its onset from the Japanese election that has brought Abe to complete power. Now, the US’ task is to create an alliance with Japan such as the late Japanese ambassador to the US Hisahiko Okazaki always advocated — as close as with the UK.
So let us celebrate a war that I believe has been averted.
Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the University of Pennsylvania’s history department. This article has previously been published on the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Web site.
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