Hyping Threats? Japan’s Black and White Defense Paper
ETA JIMA, Japan (March 20, 2012) – Newly selected officers of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Officer Candidate School march past instructors and family members as part of their graduation ceremony on their way to their first prospective ships.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy/Flickr

Hyping Threats? Japan’s Black and White Defense Paper


Japan is to be congratulated on being the most transparent country in the world after the United States in terms of public disclosure of its military policies and planning. For more than 45 years, it has published an annual White Paper, in both Japanese and English. China by comparison, remains amongst the least transparent, even though it has published a White Paper every two years in Chinese and English for around 17 years.

On publication of the English translation of Japan’s 2015 Defense White Paper, The Defense of Japan, released in Japanese in July, those of us not reading Japanese can see further detail of the political messaging around Japan-China relations. The paper is a little more black than it should be. Within seconds of opening it, my eyes lit upon the comparisons between the size of the Chinese navy (870 vessels) and the Japanese navy (137 vessels); and the comparative military personnel strengths (1.6 million for China and 140,000 for Japan). (See Fig. I-0-2-1.) The latter comparison, for  the total personnel strength,  is “white” (or reliable) while the navy ship numbers comparison is “black” (not reliable). Though the Japanese document is citing the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) as the source, the ship numbers figure for China and Japan is comparing apples and oranges.

According to U.S. Naval Intelligence, as cited by the Congressional research Service in 2015, the Chinese navy comprises “more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships, and missile-armed patrol craft” and “more than 400 minor auxiliary ships and service/support craft”. Thus, a reliable source gets us close to the 800 figure counting all possible naval vessels. Yet the number of 137 vessels for the Japanese navy includes only a handful of auxiliary ships. Japan simply has a different naval force structure. If we compare the number of major surface combatants, we see something very different from a 6 to 1 imbalance. The White Paper says China has about 70 major surface combatants, and this compares with 48 in Japan’s destroyer force, according to the White Paper in different tables.

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But in modern strategic calculation, the comparison of ship numbers is almost useless. Any assessment of relative maritime power has to take account of land-based air, intelligence, command and control arrangements, anti-ship missile potential, and Allied capability, to name just several areas of combat operations.  There is room for considerable confidence in the combat potential of the Japanese navy, captured convincingly in many sources, including a recent title published in The National Interest: “The Japanese Navy’s 5 Most Lethal Weapons of War”.

The 2015 White Paper carries a number of false or misleading statements about China’s maritime posture. It says, incorrectly that China claims the Spratly Islands on the basis of the nine-dashed line in the South China Sea. This is simply false, since the nine-dashed line, which was first published in 1946, postdates the first Chinese claim to the Spratly Islands. (It also describes the South China Sea as being waters “in the periphery of Japan”. Is this the Shinzo Abe view of Japan’s new geopolitical space?)

The White Paper says certain un-named “countries” have taken actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea based on assertions that are “incompatible with international law”. It then goes on to list Chinese actions that threaten Japan as falling into two categories: flying too close to its vessels or illuminating fire control radars against them (on two occasions). The second category of improper actions attributed to China relate to the measures associated with the creation of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which Japan says interfere with its high seas freedoms. Later in the paper, Japan notes that it too has an ADIZ in the region without explaining how the two are different.

The most alarming factoid in the White Paper is the assertion that China has increased its defense spending in the last decade by a factor of 3.64 times (since rounded up by Western commentators to 4).  (See Fig. III-1-3-5.) If this were true, it could reasonably be interpreted as a sign of warlike intent on China’s part. Any country that quadruples its defense spending in ten years is probably not expecting peace. But the 4-factor is not true, either in real terms as an absolute fact or at several levels of nuanced analysis.

How can we know this? First, according to the White Paper, Australia’s defense spending in the same period almost doubled (1.87 times). Few people in Australia would accept this as reflecting any sort of reality.

We do know that China’s announced defense budget announced in March 2005 for the coming financial year was 247.7 billion RMB. In March 2015, the appropriation for the coming year was 886.898 billion RMB, a nominal increase of 3.6, as the White Paper says. But as any economist knows, such a nominal comparison is just that. When adjusted for inflation, using the  Pentagon’s ten year average growth rate of 9.5 per cent from 2005 through 2014, the actual (real) increase in the spend would produce an increase of 2.5 per cent over the ten years.

But we do not need to rely on estimates of a non-transparent and unreliable budget system such as China’s. (Lies, damned lies and Chinese statistics?) We can look at the output of Chinese naval ship-building, as counted by the U.S. Navy, as reliable evidence of the tempo of Chinese defense outlays. According to the excellent data collated by Ronald O’Rourke for the Congressional Research Service,  In the period 2005 to 2014, the total number of new naval vessels commissioned into the PLA Navy in each of the three major categories (attack submarines, frigates and destroyers) has not exceeded double the number commissioned in the previous ten years 1995-2004).  In the period 2005-2014, the PLA was commissioning on average only one destroyer per year (12 in the decade). The year 2014 saw a peak of 5, but this compensated for a hiatus in the earlier years, some of which saw zero new destroyers commissioned in the year.

This rate of naval shipbuilding does not alarm me. It would alarm many Japanese, because it has resulted in China’s overtaking the Japanese Navy in numbers of major surface combatants in the two decades since 1995.  But more than a few Japanese naval officers remain quietly confident, as so some of their Chinese peers, that it is the Rising Sun Navy that remains pre-eminent in quality.

Of special note, the White Paper records a continuation of the 2014 trend in the number of Chinese government maritime incursions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku islands (about three per month) compared with almost double that in early 2013. The number of Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) scramble missions against Chinese aircraft continued to rise in 2014, but in that year, the number of scramble missions against Russian aircraft, was greater than for Chinese aircraft for the first time since 1993.

The annual JASDF scramble rate against Russian aircraft for the three years 2012, 2013 and 2014 were the highest for two decades. I can concede that China may be a worry of sorts for Japan, but Russia is becoming a bigger concern for all of us.

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