The three powers are at the center of growing tensions in the Pacific, driven by stiffening competition amid a slowdown in world production and trade, tensions that are at the same time tempered by deep economic ties and shared interests in avoiding any actual military clashes.
These developments register two major shifts from the situation following World War II. First, the ability of Beijing, for the first time, to begin challenging Washington’s unbridled dominance over the Pacific, including waters off China’s coast. The second major development is the Japanese rulers’ determined push to rebuild a military they can wield to advance their interests in the world — in close alliance with but independent from Washington.
Inscribed in Japan’s constitution since its military defeat and occupation by Washington in 1947 is a prohibition on the establishment of a standing army and its use abroad. Tokyo’s armed forces are officially an extension of its police force and solely defensive in posture.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that his “life’s work” is to revise the constitution to remove limits on development and use of military power. As a symbolic gesture of this mission, Abe on Dec. 26 visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead and includes many considered war criminals for their role in leading Japanese imperialism’s occupation and plunder of China and Korea during World War II. This act “closes the door to dialogue with Chinese leaders,” responded a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Dec. 30.
Last month Abe approved creation of a National Security Council and won passage of a state secrets law in parliament that imposes harsher sentences for leaking of classified military and diplomatic government information.
On Dec. 17 Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet approved its first ever “national security strategy.” Just weeks earlier Beijing had declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that includes the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands — called Senkaku by Tokyo — which Japan controls but are claimed by China.
The Japanese government’s new security strategy calls for maintaining close military ties with the U.S., but emphasizes that “Japan needs to first and foremost strengthen its own capabilities” to “advance its national interests” given “China’s rapid rise.” And, for the first time in 11 years, it increases military spending by about 5 percent over the next five years to a total of $240 billion.
Japan’s military ranks 24th in the world in the number of active-duty personnel (247,000) and fifth in the world in total spending. Increased spending is part of plans to add seven destroyers to its navy, including two with Aegis guided-missile systems, bringing its destroyer fleet to 54. Tokyo also plans six new submarines, raising its total to 22, and 20 fighter jets, increasing the total to 280, reported the Financial Times. And steps are being taken to put in place a Marine-style amphibious brigade, trained to capture territory in sea-launched operations.
Prime Minister Abe is also seeking to reverse a ban on exporting weapons. His cabinet approved a plan Dec. 23 to provide 10,000 rounds of ammunition without charge to South Korean troops who are part of U.N. forces in South Sudan.
Indicative of the enduring but not static military alliance with Washington, Abe secured a deal to close the unpopular U.S. Marine Corps Futenma military base in Okinawa and build a new one in a less populated area in the southern part of the island over the next decade. Total U.S. troops at the base are to decline from 18,000 to 10,000.
Interlocking trade ties and conflicts underlie these developments. Washington and Tokyo are the two biggest economic forces behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact of 12 nations that comprise 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. China is excluded from the pact. But with their shared goal of competing with Chinese goods, the rulers of Japan and the U.S. have their own rivalries. Washington, for example, is pressing to open up Japanese markets to imports of U.S. automobiles, beef and rice, a move Tokyo is resisting. And China remains Japan’s number one and United States’ number two trading partner.
China’s growing military capabilitiesWhile Tokyo and Washington’s military spending has declined slightly over the last decade, Beijing’s expenditures have skyrocketed as part of an ambitious militarization drive — from an estimated annual budget of roughly $30 billion in 2003 to nearly $120 billion today, according to Reuters. In a short period, Beijing has begun to develop modern weaponry on a par with the most advanced U.S. technology, including initial steps toward a blue-water navy. While its military capabilities will remain far behind those of Washington into the foreseeable future, the Chinese military stands alone today in the rapidity of its development.
In response, Washington is strengthening its naval presence in the Pacific, with a goal of shifting from having about half its warships there to 60 percent by 2020. And the U.S. rulers are also actively seeking to develop stronger military alliances in the region, including with India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.
According to a 2012 Pentagon assessment, the Chinese navy is now the biggest in Asia, deploying 79 major surface warships and more than 55 submarines. Recent technological achievements include stealth warplanes and combat drones and the world’s only ballistic anti-ship missiles, dubbed “carrier killers,” which have effectively begun to push U.S. forces a little further from China’s coastline.
In naval exercises at the end of October, “Chinese warships and submarines sliced through passages in the Japanese archipelago and out into the Western Pacific,” reported Reuters.
The exercises showed that “the United States can no longer contain the Chinese maritime power within the First Island Chain,” said Duowei News. Washington’s more than six-decade unchallenged supremacy over the East and South China seas, extending from Okinawa to Vietnam, is withering away.
Meanwhile, Washington has continued to assert its dominance of the Pacific, creating the potential of military confrontations. On Dec. 5, for example, the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser was forced to take “evasive actions” to avoid collision with Chinese naval vessels while conducting surveillance operations on China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in the South China Sea, reported the Financial Times.
Both Washington and Tokyo have conducted unannounced military flights into China’s newly declared air defense zone. During the first month, nearly 800 warplanes flew through the zone without clearance, reported China’s Defense Ministry.