Flashpoint in Asian waters
In early September, the Philippines criticized China for moving to build a military base at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, identifying a large Chinese ship operating there as a dredger. Already in March, Adm. John Richardson, chief of U.S. Naval Operations, had expressed concerns over China's dredging work in the area, because if a man-made island complete with runways is built in the Scarborough Shoal, that would enable Chinese nuclear submarines at a naval base in the Hainan Island to move to the Pacific via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and China would be able to fly bombers from the runways for a possible strike on Taiwan.
That would mean the U.S. air and maritime superiority in the area, including the Bashi Channel—which it commanded when it sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait to check against China's military exercises at the time of the 1996 presidential election in Taiwan—would no longer be secure.
It has often been said that there are four "flashpoints" in East Asia: the Korean Peninsula, the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea. While Japan, South Korea and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations care mostly about events occurring in their immediate vicinities, there are two countries that are working out strategies encompassing the entire region for their own security: China and the United States.
China has long followed a strategy that seeks to build a security environment that prevents U.S. access to the region as much as possible. This strategy, dubbed by the U.S. Defense Department in 2009 as "Anti-Access/Area Denial," calls for delineating two island chains. The "First Island Chain" extends from Kyushu to Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia, while the "Second Island Chain" stretches from the Izu Islands south of Tokyo to the Ogasawara Islands, Guam, Saipan and Papua New Guinea. The South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the Senkakus and the Korean Peninsula are all strategically crucial areas for China in its defense of the first chain.
To pursue this strategy, China is trying to establish sovereignty over the South China Sea to obstruct the U.S. presence there and to develop new weapons that would pose a threat to the U.S. in the area. Among the new weapons exhibited at a military parade in Beijing in September 2015 commemorating the 70th anniversary of China's victory over Japan were the Xian H-6 bomber with a cruising range of 8,000 km, the Dongfung 16 and 26 missiles capable of flying up to 1,000 km and 4,000 km, respectively—and of attacking American military bases within the first island chain—and the Donfung 21-D anti-ship missile known as an aircraft carrier killer. Also demonstrated was the Shenyang J-15 fighter jet, which will operate from the navy's Liaoning carrier.
In response, the U.S. is endeavoring to maintain its presence in East Asia while minimizing the threats from new Chinese weapons. In October last year, the U.S. launched a "freedom of navigation operation" in the South China Sea by sending its destroyers to within 12 nautical miles of an islet built by China in the Spratly Islands. In January, a U.S. Navy vessel equipped with the Aegis combat system traveled within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island within the Paracels, over which China had established effective control.
These actions may appear aimed at urging China to abide by international law, but they are also meant to prevent Chinese nuclear submarines from navigating freely in these waters. A U.S. military source says that Chinese submarines must not be allowed to go beyond the first island chain, because should they move into the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. mainland would come within firing distance of their ballistic missiles.
The same thing can be said about the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, which the U.S. plans to deploy in South Korea by the end of next year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in September that the THAAD system would become unnecessary once North Korea's nuclear threat ceases to exist. But a U.S. defense official dismissed such a view as nonsense, saying that the system belongs to the U.S. and the U.S. has control over it.
Indeed, the X-band radar of the THAAD has two modes—one for early warning and the other for a terminal stage missile detection—and the former's detection range is up to 2,000 km, enough to reach the Chinese ICBM base located at Tonghua in Jilin Province. The defense official says only the U.S. will decide which mode to use, suggesting that the ulterior motive of stationing the THAAD in South Korea is to minimize threats posed by Chinese missiles.
A number of unexpected events have come to the fore recently, however, threatening the U.S. assumption that the THAAD deployment will serve as a sufficient deterrent against North Korea and China. They include China's construction of islands in the Scarborough Shoal, frequent incursions of Chinese government vessels into Japan's territorial waters around the Senkakus, and North Korea's fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9. Tensions in the four flashpoints of Asia appear to be flaring up at the same time—and melding together.
The country that will be most seriously affected by these developments is Japan. If China succeeds in building an island with runways in the Scarborough and securing control over the Bashi Channel, its nuclear submarines would have easy access not only to the Izu and Ogasawara Islands but also to the Japanese mainland. Tensions may also mount in the East China Sea. While the U.S. takes the stand that the Senkakus are covered by its security treaty with Japan, Washington has not committed to taking military action should the islands come under attack, apparently out of concern that it would not want to be dragged into a confrontation in the East China Sea along with the South China Sea.
The international community, meanwhile, appears puzzled by the way Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing his diplomacy for rapprochement with Russia given that the key U.S. ally in the region is seeking closer ties with Washington's archrival. Abe, who visited Putin in Sochi just before he hosted the Group of Seven summit in Japan in May, has invited Putin to Japan for a meeting in December. A Japanese government source explains that while the media tends to focus on Abe's bid to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia, the rapprochement in fact reflects his administration's strategy of avoiding standoffs with both China and Russia—a lesson Japan learned in World War II. This would reduce the burden on the Self-Defense Forces.
However, Japan must also not forget the bitter experience it had toward the end of World War II when the Soviet Union unilaterally broke its mutual neutrality treaty with Japan and joined the war against it. Russia's behavior today does not leave Japan at ease, either.
Russian and Chinese naval vessels conducted joint maneuvers in the South China Sea from Sept. 12 to 19. That represented Moscow's departure from its past policy of remaining neutral in the region following its bitter confrontation with the U.S. over Ukraine. This, coupled with recent incursions into Japan's contiguous zones around the Senkakus by Chinese and Russian naval vessels, shows that Russia is not a benign country mindful of Japan's security.
The threat from North Korea has also become an urgent issue following Pyongyang's fifth nuclear weapons test on Sept. 9. Press Officer Jeff Davis of the U.S. Defense Department said that the event should be seen as evidence that North Korea already possesses nuclear warheads. With North Korea possessing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and Chinese nuclear submarines seeking to pass through the Bashi Channel toward Japan, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, with its P-3C anti-submarine surveillance aircraft, could be overburdened.
At a meeting in New York on Sept. 18 between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, Tokyo urged Seoul to consent to an early conclusion of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which would be needed for the two governments to share defense information. But Yun did not give a straight answer—apparently because of lingering bilateral disputes, including those over the "comfort women" issue. It remains uncertain when the two countries will start cooperating efficiently over security problems involving the Korean Peninsula.
The Defense Ministry plans to seek a record ¥5.16 trillion budget for fiscal 2017. Such a huge sum, however, may turn out to be just a drop in the bucket for ensuring the nation's security.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the October 2016 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.