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U.S.-China conflict: Will Japan take sides?

  • August 1, 2020
  • , Sentaku , p. 6
  • JMH Translation

Japan is emerging as the “trump card” in the U.S.-China battle for global hegemony. Through closer integration to halt China’s global advancement in both the economic and military spheres, the U.S. hopes Japan will play a bigger role than the Western Europeans did during the Cold War .


Defense Minister Taro Kono canceled the Aegis Ashore deployment plan because the U.S. intends to establish a more offensive posture in the region. The U.S. Department of Defense has made public that it wants to narrow the missile gap between the U.S. and China by using Japan as a foothold.


Cruise missile deployment in Okinawa


U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is often seen standing silently behind President Donald Trump. He is known as “Yesper” due to his seemingly weak presence. He doesn’t confront the president even on important issues such as withdrawing the U.S. troops stationed in Syria. However, he has initiated a large-scale U.S. military reorganization, the likes of which is only undertaken once in a dozen years, and his supporters are slowly winning a fierce fight behind the scenes among key members of the Defense Department and the military.


The point of contention is the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers. While the U.S. boasts the largest and most advanced fleet of aircraft carriers, it is now facing threats from increasingly advanced cruise missiles as well as other anti-ship weapons deployed by China and Russia. In many combat scenarios, large aircraft carriers may prove to be easy targets for these missiles.


Secretary Esper wants to do away with the Navy’s long-held belief that aircraft carriers are all powerful. He hopes to adopt smaller and more agile fleet formations instead. When talking to his friends, Esper refers to Japan as an example. Japan has no aircraft carriers and instead plans to renovate the Izumo, which is designed to carry helicopters, into a de facto aircraft carrier. The Izumo is approximately 90 meters shorter than the latest U.S. aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford (337 m).


The newest vertical-landing stealth fighter F-35B, currently under development in the U.S., will be perfectly suited to the Japanese version of the aircraft carrier. Esper also hopes to increase the number of amphibious assault ships and vertical-landing aircraft for the U.S. military.


China is alarmed by this. The next step that Japan and the U.S. could take is the one that China dreads the most: the U.S. military deployment of cruise missiles in Okinawa.


Last year during his visits to Asia-Pacific nations including Japan, the U.S. defense secretary expressed his wishes for eliminating the missile gap with China and for deploying land-based intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s defense posture that included Aegis Ashore was already considered obsolete in the Pentagon at that point.


The U.S. military and the defense department are currently planning to develop a “anti-cruise missile defense system” to replace the current anti-ballistic missile defense system. For the time being, though, the U.S. needs to defend itself against the Chinese and Russian cruise missiles by deploying its own cruise missiles.


China’s biggest obstacle is Japan


A U.S. defense source in Washington, D.C. reveals, “The U.S. realizes that it cannot build a system to defend against cruise missiles on its own. Cooperation from alliance partners is necessary,” suggesting that participation from Japan and European nations is urgently needed.


The demise of Japan’s Aegis Ashore deployment plan was the result of a rapid shift in the military environment. For Japan as well as for the U.S. military stationed in Japan and South Korea, China’s continuous production and rapid deployment of cruise missiles pose a greater threat than North Korea’s ballistic missiles produced at the expense of the livelihoods of the general public of North Korea.


Although reports claimed that the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore deployment was decided by Defense Minister Kono and caught Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by surprise, it is unlikely that Abe was so ignorant as to be unaware of the issue that is directly linked to the core of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. A campaign for acquiring “capabilities to attack enemy bases” started right after the cancellation, which faced criticism from the public who had not been informed of the military situation in the East China Sea or the discussion on cruise missile defense.


Chinese leader Xi Jinping is extremely wary of the U.S. moves aimed at changing Japan’s entire defense posture. For China, the confrontation with the U.S. came rather suddenly before it was able to prepare itself, which is all the more reason for China to prevent Japan from joining the U.S. on multiple fronts at all costs.


On May 26, the Chinese newspaper Global Times that reflects the views of government hawks ran an editorial calling for Japan to remain neutral without taking sides while repeatedly stating in the same piece, “though we understand that the alliance with the U.S. is at the core of Japan’s diplomacy.”


During an interview with Jiji Press last fall, the newspaper’s editor in chief Hu Xijin said, “The relationship between the three countries forms a triangle,” indicating that China is hoping to prevent the Japan-U.S. alliance from becoming closer and avoid disruptions to Japan-China relations.


China and the U.S. are both watching to see how Japan handles the Japan-China relationship, as it is seen as the deciding factor in China’s decision on its future path.


American historian Hal Brands explains that there are two routes through which China can achieve global hegemony: by securing control of East Asia and the Eurasian continent before seeking global control or by using its economic resources and soft power to become a hegemon without controlling Asia. In order to become the dominant power in Eurasia, Brands says, “China must first dominate the first island chain and gain control over the East China Sea and the South China Sea.” In this scenario, Japan is the biggest obstacle.


The first island chain stretches from Kyushu to Borneo island through Taiwan and the Philippines. The second island chain starts from the Izu Islands, the Ogasawara Islands, Guam, and Saipan, and runs down to Papua New Guinea. Originally, China had planned to take control of the waters within the first island chain before 2010, and control the waters within the second island chain by 2020. In the area within the first island chain lay Japan’s Senkaku islands as well as the Spratly islands and the Paracel islands, whose territorial rights are disputed by China and Southeast Asian nations. The Chinese military is lagging far behind the initial schedule.


It appears as though the U.S. government is not keen to confront China on its own, and is seeking to involve Japan in various issues including missile defense and economic matters. The U.S. seems to be feeling anxious that China is closing in on it.


Even if Japan tried to avoid getting involved in the U.S.-China conflict, the politics of the nations in the region would inevitably force Japan to choose between the U.S. and China.


In Taiwan, many young Taiwanese who support President Tsai Ing-wen are increasingly pro-Japan based on the view that “Japan equals democracy; China equals dictatorship.” The reelection of the president, the largest landslide in Taiwan’s history with 8 million votes, came about because of support from those youths who are Japan-friendly.


In Hong Kong, protest leaders Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong demanded the cancellation of Xi’s state visit to Japan. Over the Uyghur issue, Japan has also been pressed to choose sides even though many Japanese remain unfamiliar with it.


In China, many intellectuals use Japan as a medium for delivering criticism to their own government. When the new coronavirus was spreading in China like wildfire, many Japanese joined a movement that sent relief supplies to China accompanied by Chinese poems. Instead of simply being a friendly gesture, it was used by intellectuals who praised the support from Japan. In doing so, they criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the virus that was exemplified by its empty and uninspiring anti-virus slogan.


The Japanese government hasn’t shown any intent to take action against China beyond expressing “concerns.” However, as the Xi administration takes an increasingly hardline approach toward issues involving Taiwan and Hong Kong, Japan will likely face intensifying pressure to clarify its position.


But for Japan’s defense minister, the solution to this complex puzzle is clear. He would like to demonstrate that Japan stands with the U.S. by becoming the sixth member of the “Five Eyes” comprising the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. So far, the minister has only expressed interest in joining the group at a discussion held among anti-China hardliners from conservative parties of the U.S. and UK. The Japanese people, meanwhile, are still in the dark about the future of the country’s defense. (Abridged)

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