A tank unit of the Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF) takes part in a military review at the GSDF Asaka training ground in Asaka, Saitama prefecture on October 14, 2018. - Some 4,000 personnel, 260 vehicles and 40 aircraft took part in the military parade. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP)

There is one big difference between the Russian and Chinese threats to the West: Russia is a nuisance, but China is a serious, and rising, challenge.

As I pointed out earlier, Moscow basically has just one arrow in its quiver: hybrid operations – that is, cyber warfare and information attacks. Its conventional forces are weak and getting weaker, and its oil- and gas-dependent economy can barely support its military ambitions.

China, on the other hand, is a growing military challenge to its neighbors, one that is expanding in terms of size, capabilities, and quality. Beijing is increasingly hardline and assertive in pushing its regional great-power objectives, largely because its improving military permits such an aggressive approach. It is, quite simply, the foremost military threat to the West and to the political-military status quo in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan wakes up to China

Nowhere has this growing insecurity regarding China been more self-evident than in Japan. Just a few years ago, Tokyo was much more tolerant of Chinese bad behavior; Japan’s 2013 defense white paper noted merely that China’s regional military activities were a “matter of concern.”

Today, the mood in Japan is much darker. In its 2018 defense white paper, Tokyo bluntly accused China of attempting to “[change] the status quo by coercion,” noting that Beijing was militarizing the Spratly and Paracel islands, expanding naval and paramilitary operations in the South China Sea, and working to increase the operational reach of the PLA into the Pacific and Indian oceans. Closer to home, China is increasingly projecting sea and air power near Japan, particularly around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In addition, Tokyo asserts that China is attempting to “routinize” its air and naval operations in waters close to Japan.

Underpinning these efforts, the 2018 defense white paper maintains that China aims to “realize [a] fundamental modernization of its military forces,” and to “transform the PLA into one of the world’s top militaries by the middle of the 21st century.”

F-35s and aircraft carriers

Despite this recognition of a growing military threat from China, it took a while for Japan to react. Japan’s countervailing military buildup has been slow, and it has by no means matched China in terms of size and pace. At the same time, it has become increasingly purposeful. Tokyo has reversed a decade-old decline in defense spending and started adding to the military budget. More importantly, it has begun a serious effort to increase the offensive fighting capacities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), abandoning the country’s traditional “exclusively defense-oriented posture.” This has meant, for example, the acquisition of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, such as the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

This bulking-up is best exemplified by two recent SDF developments. The first is a recently rumored purchase of 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), in addition to the 42 F-35s already acquired by the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) a few years back. It is likely that the ASDF would eventually replace all of its older combat aircraft (approximately 200 F-15s, F-4s, and F-2s) with fifth-generation fighters, either the F-35 or the new indigenous X-2/F-3 (currently under development). Such a solid force of perhaps 350 fifth-generation fighters would make for a formidable counter to China’s own modernizing air force.

Japan still has to settle the fundamental conundrum of its enduring postwar “pacifist psyche”

In addition, the Japanese Defense Ministry has said that it is exploring the idea of purchasing the “B” version of the F-35, the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the JSF, and deploying up to 40 of these aircraft on Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) ships. In particular, the MSDF already operates two large “helicopter destroyers,” the Izumo and the Kaga. These 20,000-ton ships – basically open-deck carriers – could conceivably be converted to carrying the F-35B (although this would require substantial modifications, particularly strengthening the deck to absorb the heat from jet engines).

If this occurs, then Japan will have its first aircraft carriers since the end of World War II. According to John Venable, a naval expert at the Heritage Foundation, SDF forces operating the F-35B would create a “more diverse set of complications for the PLA,” providing Japan with fighter aircraft that would not be dependent on runways and giving MSDF ships added firepower.

Complications remain

The SDF is also adding to its arsenal in other ways, with new maritime patrol aircraft, a next-generation destroyer, an expanded missile-defense capability, and a new medium-range air-to-air missile (being co-developed with the United Kingdom, a first for Japan). Nevertheless, the SDF has a long ways to go before it can consider itself a military capable of sustained force projection. In the first place, Japan’s current efforts to develop a home-grown fifth-generation fighter jet (the X-2/F-3) could be a serious drag on SDF resources and efforts, and there is no guarantee that it will ever be deployed.

Moreover, Japan still has to settle the fundamental conundrum of its enduring postwar “pacifist psyche.” Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in particular, has sought to upgrade the status of the SDF and legitimize its role as a military force. In addition, many politicians have called for the revision of Japan’s so-called Peace Constitution in order to explicitly permit the maintenance of self-defense forces and to allow these forces to be used in international peacekeeping and security operations. Bold actions still need to be taken for Japan to take the next steps to becoming an effective counter to growing Chinese military power in the region.

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Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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