ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

From subs to missiles, US pushes Japan to get real about China threat

Washington needs allies to step up, but Tokyo spots pitfalls all around

The Soryu-class diesel-electric submarine Toryu is delivered to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in March at manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries' Kobe Shipyard Nishihama Quay. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

NEW YORK -- As the U.S. military pulls assets out of the Middle East to focus on China, it is increasingly looking to allies and partners to join the effort to deter Beijing and maintain a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

No country is in a better position to help than Japan, which sits near the Taiwan Strait and hosts well over 50,000 American military personnel -- the U.S.'s largest forward-deployed force in the world.

But as the U.S. and Japan prepare to discuss specific roles, missions and capabilities at a "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign affairs and defense ministers later this year, the gap between high expectations in Washington and the difficulties Tokyo faces in meeting them may come to the fore.

Submarines are one example.

In March, shipbuilder Kawasaki Heavy Industries delivered the newest Soryu-class submarine, the Toryu, to Japan's Ministry of Defense, expanding the active-submarine roster to 21.

Next year, the lead vessel of the new Taigei-class submarine -- with increased stealth and an ability to stay submerged longer than comparable foreign submarines -- will join the force. This will finally bring the fleet to 22 -- a target set in 2010, when it was increased from 16.

Japan's Taigei next-generation submarine at its naming ceremony at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' Kobe shipyard in October 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

But from then on, Japan will retire a submarine each year as a new vessel comes into service, keeping the fleet size at 22. So the Toryu, the Taigei and other Japanese subs will have a life of 22 years -- much shorter than the close to 40 years of their American counterparts.

Veteran U.S. naval analyst Ron O'Rourke has been following these Japanese submarines as potentially an asset that America can use to strengthen deterrence, within limited budgetary resources.

"I have tried to scour the world for unrealized Western naval force structure, and the No. 1 opportunity that I have identified is the Japanese attack submarine force," O'Rourke, a specialist for the Congressional Research Service, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces last June.

"If they were to simply make a decision to keep their submarines in service for 30 years, more like our own service, they could grow their submarine force from 22 to 30 without building a single boat more than what they already plan to build," O'Rourke said.

If Japan's submarine force grew to 30, it would come in "the very same time frame that we are going down to the bottom of the valley," he said, referring to the upcoming mass retirements of such Cold War-era submarines as the Los Angeles-class fast attack subs.

A bigger Japanese submarine fleet, ready to assist the U.S. Navy in a contingency, would give American war strategists a host of options. If the Japanese subs, considered to have the quietest diesel-electric engines in the world, could wait at choke points across the so-called First Island Chain, they would pose a significant threat to Chinese submarines attempting to pass these islands to reach the safer waters of the deep Pacific Ocean.

"Japan is the most capable U.S. ally in the region," said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank. If choke point defense were assigned to the Japanese submarine fleet, "the U.S. could focus on fighting the surface war and the Japanese could focus on the subsurface," he said.

Members of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force on land. The service has struggled to recruit personnel to operate vessels. (Photo courtesy of the JMSDF)

But this is easier said than done. Quite simply, Japan cannot find 70 submariners each year to operate the vessels.

Statistics show that the Maritime Self-Defense Force is the least popular among applicants to Japan's three SDF branches, largely due to long missions at sea -- and apparently the inability to use smartphones for extended periods.

In the fiscal year ended March 2020, the competition to join the Air Self-Defense Force was up to around twice as steep as to join its maritime counterpart. The ability to visit foreign countries -- once a big draw for the maritime force -- has lost its shine in recent years as young Japanese prefer to stay home.

Even if Japan could find the personnel, through such means as diverting them from the ground force, it has not had official discussions with the U.S. on what specific roles each side would play in a contingency, sources say.

To be sure, the "roles, missions and capabilities" of American and Japanese forces have been a topic in past two-plus-two meetings. But Japan's role was always limited to the defense of the homeland. The alliance has long been described with the phrase "shield and spear," with Japan as the former and the U.S. as the latter.

Now, Washington wants Tokyo to hold a spear in its hand, however small.

Last December, Japan's cabinet approved the development of long-range missiles, capable of reaching all of North Korea and parts of China and Russia, to be mounted on aircraft.

There are also plans to extend the range of the ground force's existing Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles. But where to deploy such ground-based missiles has not been decided, and significant pushback is expected, as their locations would immediately become target No. 1 in a future conflict.

Japan plans to extend the range of its existing Type 12 surface-to-ship missile. But where to deploy such ground-based missiles has not been decided, and significant pushback is expected. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force)

Tom Karako, director for the Missile Defense Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, noted that within the U.S. military there is unprecedented cooperation among the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to jointly develop long-range missiles and hypersonic weapons to respond to growing Chinese capabilities.

"What this unprecedented cooperation reflects is a newfound seriousness about the threat" from China, Karako said. "The United States can't do that alone and it's going to require a greater cooperation with our most important ally in the region, which is Japan," he said.

How the U.S. wants Japan to help, is to create "mass" in capacity, Karako said. "We're going to need lots and lots of rockets and missiles to complicate the targeting job of the Chinese, so that they do not underestimate our resolve and do not think that they can affect a fait accompli," he said.

Karako said the U.S. is not looking to open more permanent U.S. military bases in Japan, since they could be easy targets for Chinese missiles. Instead, it would be effective for the two allies to signal a willingness to look into flexible ways of deploying missiles, such as mobile basing, island-hopping and drone-based platforms that can take off with short runways, he said.

"We want to have very fluid, basing structures" that could also be more digestible for the local communities, Karako said.

Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Japan has had little appetite for taking on more defense responsibility -- "it's expensive and it's politically divisive at home," she said. Taking on a broader security role in the Indo-Pacific would require laying the institutional groundwork, and bringing the Japanese public on board, Lind added.

"Japan's people may decide that they don't want to accept the costs and risks of this," she said. "But they should understand what that means for Japan's security and its broader interests."

"China has increased its defense spending by 620% since 1990 and is threatening Japanese territory. ... If a country is facing a security threat, it needs to protect itself," Lind said.

"Japan should of course take sensitivities about its past into consideration as it increases its military participation," Lind said. But she added that there is a big difference between a unilateral buildup aimed at changing the status quo -- what China is doing -- as opposed to a Japanese effort to increase deterrence in order to preserve the status quo, along with its U.S. ally and in the context of a broader regional balancing effort such as the Quad.

"The days of hoping that we can shape China's intentions are past," Lind said. "China has made its intentions -- for Taiwan, for its territorial disputes -- very clear, and they are counter to Japanese and U.S. interests."

Representatives of parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal pose for an official picture after the signing ceremony in Santiago, Chile, in March 2018. Japan took leadership of the bloc after the U.S. left in 2017.   © Reuters

Alessio Patalano, a reader in East Asian warfare and security at King's College London, noted that the Chinese challenge is not only military but also economic and ideational.

"Japan's work in developing the 'free and open Indo-Pacific' and steering the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, as much as its military investments, should be regarded as a relevant response to build upon, not something to be dismissed," Patalano said.

"Sino-Japanese relations are rooted in deep historical ties, encompassing today complex economic and political relationships that cannot be solved by armed competition alone," he said.

Patalano also pointed out that Washington's ultimate aims are not clear-cut. "If preventing the deterioration of regional stability is the goal, then deterrence towards China and shaping the rest of the region should be pursued hand in hand," he said. "In this regard, Japan has been making progress in shaping the economic and security landscapes."

"Why are Japan's efforts in shaping the landscape through economy and trade less relevant to the strategy aimed at shaping stability?" Patalano asked.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more