The two amphibious assault ships, Izumo and Yantai, which carried out joint drills in international waters close to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Monday and Tuesday, are not just embarking on a trip to mark the 100th anniversary of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. It is the latest in a series of increasingly public displays of military power by Russian and Chinese states, and they are likely to worry Tokyo in particular.
For years, Japan has sought to counteract what it sees as a buildup of Chinese military forces, both within China and across Asia, that threaten to erode its regional influence. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Japanese forces have been professionalized and boosted dramatically, but the question remains whether the country is sufficiently equipped to respond to a resurgence of Chinese aggression, both in an immediate sense — such as over the Senkaku Islands, or in the long-term. Chinese activity in disputed waters, over the South China Sea and Japan’s islands in the East China Sea, is at record levels, with at least 70 naval vessels and 24 fighter jets conducting operations in that area over the course of just one month in September. And while experts emphasize that Beijing maintains far fewer forces in China’s heavily militarized region than Japan does, military planners in Beijing are clearly concerned. And Japanese officials, leaders and commentators have been reacting accordingly.
Japan’s two former premiers, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, have taken strong diplomatic and political initiatives designed to stabilize the relationship with China. In 2004, a meeting of world leaders in Wuzhen offered a rare opportunity for Japan and China to publicly address their territorial disputes. Tokyo, which claims half of the Senkaku Islands, imposed on Beijing many of the administrative and security measures it insists the Japanese people were entitled to upon formal acceptance of a treaty surrendering the country’s ancient territories to Japan in 1945. Although the treaty has never officially been rescinded, in principle at least, both nations have been working toward a rapprochement, although both remain fundamentally uneasy about each other’s intentions. Abe’s drive for security alliances in Asia has brought closer ties with the United States and an implicit entreaty from the new president, Donald Trump, to Japan to join the U.S. missile defense system of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a system designed to defend the U.S. mainland from North Korean ballistic missiles. But the expansion of Chinese forces and Beijing’s aggression have taken the initiative away from Japan and the relationship between the two nations has begun to drift.
Some have proposed moving Japan’s military forces from their bases in Okinawa, where they can be easily targeted by Chinese missiles, to the northern island of Hokkaido, where the safety of an even larger population can be guaranteed. To some extent, such steps have already begun; the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force has been conducting limited combat training, and in April Japan deployed its first Aegis destroyer to the remote waters of the Sea of Japan, an area where Japanese authorities believe Chinese submarines operate and in which Chinese missiles can be launched.
It is unclear whether these steps will be taken on a larger scale. But even if they are not, the fact that Russian and Chinese warships have been spotted so regularly in the region around Japan, and in the vicinity of territorial disputes, should serve as a warning that U.S. allies and the United States itself have much to worry about. As President Vladimir Putin reasserts Russia’s role in Asia, and Chinese President Xi Jinping builds a Chinese presence in Asia to compensate for his country’s declining global influence, U.S. forces operating in Asia may only become more constrained.
Estimates vary on the number of Chinese naval forces, which currently number about 190. But the U.S. government has speculated that Beijing’s fleet, which carries out surface, sub and submarine based operations throughout the world, could exceed one thousand by the end of this decade. Moreover, intelligence experts estimate that Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea may reach as high as 25,000 personnel and 50 surface ships by 2020. And in October, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that Beijing’s goal of transforming its navy into a “global force” may have become a reality.
It is unfortunate that the Izumo and Yantai mission, which observers considered prudent, has become an issue in the tense U.S. election. To the extent that Russia and China have become increasingly hostile to each other — and to the United States, which they both see as an implacable rival —