Tokyo’s China Problem: Ignore It or Deal With It?

 

 

One need not be a cynic to think the Japanese government’s preferred approach to problems is to ignore them, while hoping they go away or somebody else takes care of them. The People’s Republic of China is one such problem for Tokyo — but, thanks to COVID-19, it’s harder to ignore.

 

Since the virus outbreak – perhaps as cover or as a distraction from internal problems, or both – Beijing has been picking fights from one end of Asia to the other, and practically daring someone to do something about it.

 

And Japan is in the crosshairs, even if the Abe administration publicly pretends the relationship is fine. Chinese naval and air incursions in Japanese-administered areas of the East China Sea are at record levels. Chinese Coast Guard ships recently (and not for the first time) chased a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku islands — in Japanese waters. And, underreported, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in international waters off Shanghai. Initial damage reports suggested the Chinese boat rammed the Japanese ship.

 

Meanwhile, China continues sinking Vietnamese fishing boats. A PLAN (People’s Liberation Army – Navy) ship locked its fire control radar onto a Philippine Navy ship, and there are exercises to intimidate and hone skills needed to invade Taiwan. Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang left out the usual word “peaceful” when talking about China’s goal of “reunification” with Taiwan.

 

At the far southern end of the South China Sea, a PRC (People’s Republic of China) flotilla of maritime militia, Coast Guard, and PLA Navy harassed a Malaysian survey ship. Chinese fishing boats elbowed in on Indonesian fishing grounds near the Natuna islands.

 

Farther west, the PLA is encroaching on three points on India’s land boundaries, digging in and going well beyond the usual jostling on the border.

 

Then there is Hong Kong. China has begun strangling it.

 

Chinese diplomacy worldwide is now equal parts insults and threats. This so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy won’t make friends. But perhaps that’s the point.

 

Ominously, despite the COVID epidemic, China still churns out ships and aircraft, and PLA training is going all-out. Military spending will increase 6.6% in 2020 while the economy contracts. That’s scary, considering China has no enemies, other than imaginary ones.

 

Beijing may prefer to get what it wants without shooting, but using force is presumably on the menu of options — especially if anyone resists too much. So expect to see more Chinese ships and aircraft (and even ground forces) doing more things in more places more often and with a chip on their shoulder. 

 

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It’s easy to dismiss all this as bluster. But Beijing is moving the baseline, and post-COVID may indeed find itself in a stronger position, having intimidated its neighbors and in control of more territory — and ready to do more.

 

Or maybe its sheer boorishness might finally coalesce serious opposition to Chinese efforts to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.

 

 

Who in the Region Will Take On China?

 

Many years ago, other nations might have looked to Japan. But not today. The People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities are outstripping the JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Force). And there’s no sign Japan will do much about it. 

 

Increase defense spending? Not enough. Develop JSDF joint capability, a necessity for a modern military? Hardly. Establish a joint operational headquarters so the United States and Japanese forces can operate together? No. 

 

Buying and talking about developing “shiny objects” — hypersonic weapons being the latest without thought of a coherent defense scheme? Yes. Chanting the mantras “Quad” and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and holding high-level talks? Of course.

 

South Korea? President Moon Jae In wouldn’t mind a closer tie-up with China, if he thought he could get away with it. But he isn’t ready to jettison the Americans, since a large chunk of the South Korean population would protest. The U.S.-ROK relationship isn’t what it was.

 

ASEAN? Vietnam has been resisting China for 1,000 years. But there is scant evidence other countries either individually or as a loose coalition will stand up to the PRC.

 

Singapore hedges more all the time. Thailand has drifted toward the PRC (owing to Obama administration missteps). Malaysia wants to have its cake and eat it too. Indonesia is potentially a bright spot. It will take Chinese money but never has any great love for the Chinese state, and sometimes Chinese people. Cambodia and Laos? In China’s pocket.

 

Philippines? President Rodrigo Duterte leans towards the PRC, even though most Filipinos don’t agree. Regardless, the Philippines isn’t the solid U.S. ally it was a few years back. 

 

Taiwan? Its existence is an affront to the Chinese Communist Party as it provides evidence that consensual government and human rights suit Chinese people. But the most Taiwan can do is defend itself and that is iffy.

 

Australia? The Chinese ambassador is threatening economic pain, and the editor of China’s state-owned Global Times described Australia as gum stuck to China’s shoe. Plenty of Australians would like to punch him. But plenty of Australian businessmen, and current and former senior government officials, will grovel for Chinese cash.

 

One suspects the Australians will stay firm on security and sovereignty. But alone, Australia isn’t enough to forestall PRC domination of the region.

 

New Zealand? It faces the same pressure as Australia, but is more likely to “fold.”

 

South Pacific nations: PRC encroachment and political subversion continues, despite COVID-19. The same thing is happening in the Western and Central Pacific.

 

India? India has had the clearest sense of the Chinese threat for decades and will defend itself. But Indian influence is largely confined to the Indian Ocean area.

 

 

Wherefore America

 

So while the PRC pushes and bullies across the region, resistance is haphazard, and no Asian country is a match for China one-on-one.

 

As usual, everyone looks to the United States.

 

The Americans are trying to stand fast in the Indo-Pacific and are key — independently and as a rallying point for alliances. America still has considerable force in Asia-Pacific, though there’s a perception (not unfounded) that it’s not keeping up with China. It didn’t help that while the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt was a COVID-19 casualty in Guam, the PLA Navy’s carrier, Liaoning, was sailing where the Japanese and Taiwanese would notice. 

 

America has also taken a financial hit, and there won’t be any more money for defense. An administration dealing with COVID-19-induced domestic chaos and a horrific outbreak of leftist-fueled rioting can’t pay as much attention to foreign affairs even if it wants to. 

 

The Japanese government should dispose of any illusions about the Americans solving the China problem on Japan’s behalf.

 

 

Japan’s Decision

 

So Tokyo has a choice. 

 

It can keep ignoring the China problem. And if “past is prologue,” that is presumably the preferred course of action. China will be pleased — and Xi Jinping might even grace Tokyo with a state visit when COVID blows over.

 

Or Japan might admit the approaching crisis that threatens Japan’s territory and independence.

 

If so, Japan’s defense and foreign ministers might quietly meet with their American counterparts and ask, “What can we do to help?”

 

Once the Americans recover from the shock, the Japanese might propose the following:

 

First, establish a joint operational headquarters in Japan where U.S. and Japanese forces coordinate the defense of Japan and northeast Asia. 

 

Second, make the defense of Japan’s southern islands — the so-called Nansei Shoto — a joint Japan-U.S. effort. Establish a Joint Task Force — Nansei Shoto on Okinawa — and consider Taiwan’s defense part of the mandate. 

 

Third, make the JSDF a joint force so the three services can conduct operations together. As it is, the JSDF is not even the sum of its parts, and is of limited use to U.S. forces. Promise to fire senior officers until ones who will cooperate with each other are found.

 

Fourth, spend more on defense: 10% increases for the next five years. And the first priority is to make SDF service an attractive, respected profession. JSDF routinely misses recruitment targets by about 25%.

 

The fact that these four courses of action are needed is evidence enough of the government of Japan ignoring the serious problems facing national defense.

 

However, if these things are done, Japan will add some credibility to the idea of a “Quad” — consisting of Japan, U.S., Australia, and India — as a regional political and military counterweight to the PRC. And “FOIP” might also be seen as more than a nice concept.

 

Then, perhaps, other nations that aren’t keen on Chinese domination will join in. 

 

Although it’s easy to be pessimistic about Japan’s leaders, observers note that, when faced with an immediate, unavoidable crisis, Japan is capable of astonishing response and transformation. 

 

If the Chinese behavior unveiled by COVID-19 isn’t evidence enough of the crisis headed Japan’s way, it’s hard to imagine what is — short of PLA Marines landing somewhere in the Nansei Shoto.

 

How Tokyo responds is anybody’s guess.

 

 

Author: Grant Newsham

 

Grant Newsham

Author:

Grant Newsham is a retired United States Marine Officer and a former U.S. diplomat with many years’ experience in Japan. He was the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense force and was instrumental in promoting the JSDF’s initial moves towards an amphibious capability.

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