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Opinion

Japan must respond to China's growing naval power

Tokyo should boost defense spending and redouble cooperation with its allies

Buying F-35B stealth fighters from the U.S. is among Japan's options to better counter China and North Korea.   © Reuters

The crisis over North Korea's nuclear program has dominated security debate in Northeast Asia over the past year. But Japan must not be distracted from a much more important long-term challenge: China's enhancement of its military capabilities in the region and its growing assertiveness, driven by President Xi Jinping's more hawkish and nationalist foreign policy.

China is upgrading its People's Liberation Army Navy as it confronts Japan in the East China Sea over the the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan but also claimed by China which calls them the Diaoyu. China also continues to expand military capabilities in the South China Sea to put itself in the position to potentially deny access to a region that is criss-crossed by trade routes, including Japan's.

Intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft continue around the Senkaku Islands, although there has been a reduction in such activity over the last six months. It is tempting to look at that development as part of an incremental thaw in relations between China and Japan. There have recently been more high-level exchanges between Tokyo and Beijing, including coordination on North Korea, and a willingness by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to cooperate with China's suite of geo-economic projects, notably the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. But the relationship remains fraught with strategic mistrust.

For example, there has not yet been any implementation of crisis avoidance and mitigation mechanisms, such as common radio frequencies or a hotline between Tokyo and Beijing, despite commitments from both governments to introduce these measures to avoid an unintended clash around the Senkaku Islands. While China has reduced the number of vessels around the islands, it has engaged in other provocative moves such as keeping these ships longer in the disputed waters.

China is also challenging Japan's control of critical water and airspace around the Ryukyu Islands, known in Japanese as the Nansei Shoto, as demonstrated by its repeated military exercises in the Miyako Strait in the island chain. In December 2016, Beijing alarmed Tokyo when it conducted a so-called "innocent passage" by sending the aircraft carrier Liaoning and escorts for the first time through the strait.

Tokyo and Beijing also continue to be at loggerheads over sharing natural resources in the East China Sea. China has unilaterally accelerated the exploitation of natural resources in the area despite the lack of boundary lines governing the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf in the waters.

How can Japan respond to these security challenges? The answer will depend on a long-term strategic vision for the role of the Self-Defense Forces, its cooperation with the U.S., adequate military funding and identifying areas of sustained need. The Abe administration is looking closely at this issue as it prepares revised National Defense Program Guidelines and a new Mid-term Defense Program, which are due to be released at the end of this year.

One of the key focus points for the new defense planning is how to respond to the enhancement of Pyongyang's ballistic missile capabilities and other security issues on the Korean Peninsula. This might involve improving Japan's ballistic missile defense capabilities and procuring offensive strike capabilities to attack enemy bases under the rules of self-defense.

Some of these new or enhanced capabilities would address both the short-to-medium-term threat posed by North Korea and the longer-term challenges of China's expanding maritime capabilities. This strategy could include Japan buying F-35B aircraft from the U.S. Japan is reportedly interested in acquiring 20 to 40 of the multirole stealth fighters. They could be used to counter both North Korea and China. The F-35B would be especially appealing for the defense of remote islands in the Okinawa Island chain since they can operate from shorter airstrips than other versions of the fighter.

Japan also needs to improve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the East China Sea and Okinawa Islands. Tokyo should boost spending on unmanned aerial vehicles, which would provide timely intelligence on Chinese naval activities. Japan may want to procure additional ISR assets to complement its force of unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance aircraft that is slated to be delivered and operational this year. Japan will also likely expand ISR capabilities on Okinawan islands as evidenced by building a radar station on Yonaguni Island in 2016 and centralizing ISR operations on Miyako Island.

Japan must complement its ISR capabilities with a bolstered amphibious force. For example, Tokyo should consider buying more surveillance helicopters for its Maritime Self Defense Forces. Japan has already based its first rapid-response amphibious brigade in Nagasaki this year. This Ground Self-Defense Forces brigade will be transported on MSDF amphibious ships, a key move for promoting integration and interoperability among the three SDF services.

Another key element will be increased cooperation with the U.S. and growing partnerships with other countries in the region. Under Japan's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy -- a plan to counter China's increased influence -- the Abe administration eyes expanding international cooperation. One example is the recent revival of the Quadrilateral Dialogue on defence issues between Japan, the U.S., India and Australia. Japan's continued efforts to "multilateralize" concerns about China's maritime ambitions serve as an essential diplomatic complement to its defense measures.

While Japan is faced with a range of pressing defense challenges, it must deal with budgetary constraints. The Abe administration is pushing for incremental increases in Japan's defense spending. But the reality is that the defense budget, which amounted to $46 billion last year, represents only around 1% of gross domestic product.

This amount pales in comparison to Chinese defense spending, which was estimated at $152 billion last year and is expected to increase by 8% in 2018. The most recent report on defense planning from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party indicates a desire to increase military spending closer to 2% of GDP.

The financial and demographic realities facing Japan make this a long climb. Opinion polls show Japanese remain skeptical about increasing defense spending. But the protection of its citizens is the first responsibility of any state, even one as cautious about military activity as Japan. Tokyo needs to respond urgently to the threat from China.

J. Berkshire Miller is a senior visiting fellow for the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. He is also a distinguished fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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