The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers conducting an exercise in the Philippine Sea in February 2018. Photo: US Navy via AFP

About 25,000 military personnel from 25 nations, manning 45 surface ships, five submarines and 200-plus aircraft, are taking part in the “Rim of the Pacific,” or RIMPAC, exercise, which wrap up in early August.

Held every two years, the drills take place off the coasts of California and Hawaii as well as on land. This year, Vietnam and Israel joined the roster of participating nations.

But one major regional naval power was very prominently dis-invited.

China finds itself persona non grata

In May 2017, China was invited to participate. However, the invitation was withdrawn earlier this year. The issue was China’s ongoing build-up of military forces and facilities in the South China Sea.

“The decision to dis-invite China from RIMPAC is more than just Beijing’s increasing naval presence in the zone south of Okinawa, and more to do with its recalcitrant behavior in the South China Sea, especially its persistent militarization efforts,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The dis-invite would align well with the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ concept that both Japan and the US have been championing, to which China’s actions run contrary,” Koh added.

“China continues to actively work to alter the status quo and to force Japan into admitting a dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

“China consistently was taking actions, especially in the South China Sea, that were incompatible both with international law and prior pledges they made at the highest level to the US not to militarize their man-made features in the Spratleys and Paracels,” he added.

Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, Japan, said the withdrawal of the invitation sends “a strong message [from the US] that the path of attempted South China Sea domination, open use of ‘island’ bases by military aircraft and failure to acknowledge and comply with the International Court of Justice adjudication of 2016 are all unacceptable forms of behavior, and therefore there will be a [minor] sanction, demonstrating that China is not a state of the international order.”

Still, the issue should not be confused with Washington’s trade war.

“It should be regarded quite separately. Trade restricting is an issue that a wild man like Trump or a calm man like Obama might resort to, but has nothing to do with the SCS [South China Sea] issue and international maritime commons, although it does relate to the rules-based international order,” said Mulloy.

Missiles aloft

But while China’s RIMPAC dis-invitation had more to do with its moves in the South China Sea than Beijing’s posture toward Japan and its outlying islands, what is clear is that Tokyo is upgrading its anti-shipping capabilities across the three branches of its armed services.

In one RIMPAC drill, Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) and the US Army fired anti-ship missiles simultaneously.

“The Japanese GSDF’s participation with its Type-12 mobile anti-ship missile system represents a new milestone – alongside the US Army’s demonstration of its multi-domain battle concept using the Norwegian Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile fired from a Palletized Launch System – [at Kauai Island, Hawaii] represents a new level of coordination between Japan and American forces,” said Koh.

After a US Army drone and a Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft jointly identified a target vessel, the Japan-US joint command post alerted the JGSDF launch unit, which then fired a Type-12 missile to destroy the ship.

Japan had announced that shore-based coastal defense anti-ship missile batteries would be deployed as part of the build-up in its Southwestern Isles, or Nansei Shoto, as well as the Okinawa chain. These assets enable Japan to target PLA Navy units traversing those waters.

Miller described the ship-sinking exercise as “an important step to further enhance interoperability and real-time, live-fire exercises between Japan, the US and also Australia – which took part in the exercise.”

“This further enhances the coordination and growth of the trilateral security ties between Tokyo, Canberra and Washington – which are now the gold standard for mini-laterals in the region,” said Miller. “Of course, China will be unhappy – as it always is – at such exercises and growth in partnerships of the US-Japan alliance. However, Beijing’s own destabilizing activities in the maritime realm … have only contributed to such cohesion and drive between the partners.”

Placing Japanese anti-shipping capabilities in an international context with the US and Australia is a positive step, according to Mulloy, who added that Japan’s  GSDF capability “was developed in the 1980s to counter Soviet Pacific Fleet surface vessel capabilities and great amphibious capacity, while the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) was notably late and limited in developing means to counter those threats.”

“China may well consider the GSDF Type 12 missile batteries in the Nansei Shoto as threatening, but only if the PLA Navy were to have any ambitions to utilize those waters for operations,” said Mulloy. “This demonstrates what many in the Japanese security community have been saying for a decade or more – that the three Japanese self-defense forces are all maritime security actors, not just the MSDF.”

According to Koh, future  GSDF coastal defense planning for the islands, including Ishigaki Island in southwestern Japan, was certainly validated by the ship-sinking demonstration during RIMPAC.

Tokyo on anti-ship missile buying spree

More related assets are in the pipeline.

“The JSDF is moving with its XASM-3 supersonic anti-ship missile program, with reported air-launched trials having taken place, using the JASDF’s Mitsubishi F-2 fighter,” said Koh. “Moving forward is also the XSSM ship-launched anti-ship missile program of which trials reportedly took place late last year.

“Information about these two new-generation missile systems is scarce, but it appears that these programs are in rather advanced stages of development and should enter service by around 2020 and not later.”

While Mulloy cautions against overestimating RIMPAC’s influence over Japan’s defense planning in this regard, he said: “Placing Japanese capabilities in international context is helpful for removing the Japan-China binary threat mindset.”

In addition, Mulloy is focused on what he describes as “the greatest potential change for the Air Self Defense Force.”

Three types of missiles are being examined for potential purchase by the Japanese – one Norwegian and two US. “It is the possibility that all three could be purchased that appears odd,” said Mulloy.

“The controversy surrounding the cruise missile capabilities being examined is that while Defense Minister Onodera originally suggested it as a counter-measure for [North Korean] missile capabilities, in a restatement of Japanese policy from 1957 [that Japan has the right of pre-emptive strike when faced with imminent, threat of missile attack], and not as a measure for use against Chinese naval forces, but later changed his position to suggest that this ‘deterrent’ capability could be utilized for more general security, as in the East China Sea, including for defense of the Senkaku Islands,” Mulloy wrote.

“This blurring of the line of a strategic deterrent is usually considered a hazardous strategy for the mixed signals that could be sent to different potential foes,” added Mulloy.

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