Less than two weeks away from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague issuing its ruling on the case brought by the Philippines vis-à-vis China’s territorial claim in South China Sea, tensions have been on the rise in East Asia.
It began when a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel entered the contiguous water between Japan and China in the East China Sea on June 9. About a week later on June 15, a PLAN surveillance ship entered Japanese territorial waters off of Kagoshima. In both cases, Japan reacted strongly, protesting to the Chinese government over the PLAN’s behavior. And since June 29, fueled by a commentary by a retired Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) general, there has been an intense speculation over what transpired when a JASDF fighter scrambled to meet an approaching PLA Air Force (PLAAF) fighter on June 17. According to the general, the PLAAF fighter made a move that suggested it was about to attack the Japanese fighter.
As if those incidents were not enough, North Korea has provided an additional source of tension. On June 22, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles, believed to be the Musdan intermediate-range missile. Although at least one of the two launches was likely a failed test, this is nonetheless a provocative act that is in clear violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2270.
Needless to say, Japan protested these incidents strongly (with the exception of the PLAAF-JASDF encounter on June 17 which, a senior government official suggested, Tokyo did not consider “an extraordinary action” by the Chinese fighter). With or without official protests lodged by the Japanese government, these incidents are the most recent illustrations of the worsening security environment surrounding Japan. Since it is unlikely for either of these two countries to dramatically change their behavior in the near future, it would be fair to say that Japan will continue to invest in its defense capability.
The question is how. Currently, Japan’s defense buildup plan, as outlined in the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), puts a premium on developing a “Joint Dynamic Defense Force.” While the NDPG identifies a wide variety of capabilities—transport, C4ISR, cyber, and ballistic missile defense (BMD), to name a few—to be prioritized, the development of the capability to defend remote islands has been a major driver of the current defense build-up plan. The Mid-Term Defense Program argues that “preserving maritime supremacy and air superiority” is the critical component of Japan’s effort to build the capability to defend remote islands, many of which are in the southwestern region, and a great deal of emphasis has been placed on how to reorganize the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) into a structure that is better able to respond to wider range of security challenges, including their capacity to conduct amphibious operations.
Given the security challenges that Japan now faces, these have been indeed initial steps to rebalance the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). In fact, although the necessity for the JSDF rebalance was first recognized in the 1995 National Defense Program Outline (NDPO), it took almost two decades, until the current NDPG, to set the rebalancing effort fully in motion. Still, as Japan looks to revise both the NDPG and Medium Term Defense Plan (MTDP) in a few years, these recent incidents demonstrated the daunting challenges that await the defense planners in Tokyo.
First, the movements by the PLA in the waters and airspace of the East China Sea illustrated that, while amphibious capability is important to develop as Japan’s last line of defense, an investment in the capabilities to ensure maritime and air superiority is just as, if not more, urgently required for Japan to maintain a credible deterrence against overly assertive behavior by China. In particular, the modernization of JASDF’s fighter fleet beyond the ongoing F-35 acquisition will be critical in keeping up JASDF’s air defense capacity and yet, at the current pace of acquisition, JASDF could face a serious capability gap in its fighter fleet.
Secondly, North Korea’s missile tests are yet another reminder that the necessity for continuous investment in BMD will be unlikely to ease in the foreseeable future. Since Japan embarked on the bilateral joint research and development in BMD in the mid-1990s, the government has prioritized investment in BMD in its defense planning. With Pyongyang’s behavior growing not only more provocative, but also more unpredictable, the need for continuous investment in BMD is greater than ever.
Finally, the past few weeks’ incidents are yet another reminder for Japan of the necessity to invest in the areas that tend to be put on the back burner, namely C4ISR and logistics. Needless to say, C4ISR — Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance — is critical for the JSDF to improve its situational awareness. In addition, without a sound logistical capability, the JSDF will not be able to continue its operations over a long period of time after assets have been mobilized. However, the modernization of main platforms such as aircraft and ships are often prioritized over building these capabilities because they are more tangible and thus easy to justify.
What is most daunting for the defense planners in Japan is that, with little prospect of a meaningful increase in Japan’s defense budget, their decisions on defense investments have become a zero-sum game. An increase in one area must be paid for by a decrease in other areas. And such defense planning decisions will continue to be made while Japan’s two major sources of security concerns in its neighborhood can spend as much on defense as the governments wants to.
Unfortunately for Japan, this situation will be unlikely to change for some years to come. An upcoming revision of NDPG and MTDP will provide an excellent opportunity for the Japanese government to think through some of the binds that the JSDF has been placed under. After all, if Japan genuinely wants to maintain an edge over its adversaries in both capability and capacity, the next revision may be the last chance for Japan to adjust its defense build-up planning, including budgetary decisions.