Inexperienced Chinese naval officers ran the risk of sparking a confrontation with Japan in the East China Sea, a leading Japanese military academic has warned.
Speaking at the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane, Australia, Lt. Gen. Noboru Yamaguchi of Japan’s National Defense Academy said China’s rapid build-up could see it match the United States in military expenditure by 2030, but the greater danger was an “accident” provoking an incident.
“Equipment can be expanded very rapidly, but navy captains take 20 years to train – and if that’s not the case, then many young captains and untrained sailors piloting ships and submarines may cause quite a dangerous situation,” he said in his June 13 speech.
“You have to talk to the Chinese to avoid any unnecessary accident which could escalate into a confrontation.”
The row over the uninhabited islands known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan has seen a number of incidents involving Chinese and Japanese vessels, including claims by Japan that a Chinese frigate locked weapons-targeting radar onto a Japanese destroyer and helicopter on two occasions in January.
China’s Ministry of Defense denied the reports, accusing Japan of “creating a tense atmosphere and wilfully misleading international public opinion.”
“A Chinese helicopter came within 90 meters of a Japanese destroyer – this was dangerous for them, as even our cadets could shoot them with their own eyesight,” said Yamaguchi, a former Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) aviator.
“One of our [Japanese] helicopters hit the mast of a Japanese vessel two years ago and all six crew members were killed. The only thing that happened to the ship was some cracked paint.”
Yamaguchi noted that both the Japanese and Chinese publics were aware of the row over the potentially resource-rich islands, despite claims by Tokyo that their sovereignty was unquestioned.
However, he said the Japanese public was misguided if it considered the United States would automatically come to the defense of the disputed isles.
Under the Japan-U.S. mutual security treaty, Yamaguchi said there were three conditions to U.S. intervention: it was in an area under Japanese administration; it was a military attack; and it required joint action with Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
The question is often asked, ‘Is the U.S. going to defend the Senkakus?’ My short answer is the question is wrong…If Japan does not stand up [to a foreign military incursion] then the U.S. has no reason to stand up,” he said.
U.S. v China?
Yamaguchi said China’s military spending had grown 18 times larger over the past 20 years, reaching $198 billion in 2011 compared to just $12 billion in 1991. Japan’s spending had barely grown over the same period, rising to $60 billion from $33 billion.
While U.S. military spending was $717 billion in 2011, Yamaguchi said China would match it by 2030 or 2050 at the latest, “but that does not necessarily mean the same military power.”
“Military strength and performance is not represented by how much money you’ve spent this year, but how much you’ve spent in the last 20 to 30 years,” he said, pointing to the U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft that took 20 years to develop.
“The U.S. has allies and friends so the question is not necessarily China versus the U.S., or in the worst case, China versus U.S. plus Australia plus Japan plus South Korea and other European countries. If we have better relations with China, we don’t have to compare Chinese military expenditure with ours,” he added.
On June 14, Australia’s defense minister Stephen Smith announced that 1,150 U.S. Marines would train in northern Australia in 2014, with the number to reach 2,500 by 2016.
Yamaguchi welcomed the decision by Australia to host U.S. marines, saying it would take the pressure off Japan and help ensure the “political sustainability” of the U.S. pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“If we have another helicopter accident near Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, we will have a very serious problem with the continued stationing of U.S. forces in Japan as a whole. So [Australia’s] efforts to accommodate some Marines helps to reduce their presence in Japan, and that makes the U.S. presence more sustainable,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Japanese government advisor said he was optimistic on China’s rise, saying the two nations had common interests in securing sea lanes and in combating regional security threats such as North Korea.