The shifting power balance in maritime East Asia and Japan’s rising threat perception

Japan's diversification of security relationships to the Philippines and Vietnam is fundamentally informed by the shifting balance of power in East Asia. As Figure 7.1 reveals, China, in just a few decades, has eclipsed Japan and is fast catching up to the US in terms of economic strength.

I I China share of USA China Japan ^^—USA

Figure 7.1 Gross domestic product (projected after 2018) of the US, Japan, and China

Source: International Monetary Fund (2019).

Note: Numbers in current USD billions (lines, left Y-axis) and China’s GDP as a percent share of the US’s GDP (bars, right Y-axis).

Japan has both contributed to and benefits from China's developing economy via foreign direct investment, ODA, and trade (Jerdén & Hagstrom, 2012, pp. 230-234). It also, however, presents Japan with a tremendous strategic challenge, as China has translated economic strength into military power as crudely albeit tellingly indicated by its rapidly growing defense budget. As Figure 7.2 reveals, China as of 2018 outspends Japan in defense more than five times over, and trend lines suggest that it is catching up also to the US (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2019), some projections indicating that China will overtake the US as the leading defense spender by 2030.

Japan's NSS recognizes this development, noting, ‘Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the balance of power in the international community has been changing on an unprecedented scale’ (National Security Council of Japan, 2013, p. 6). The maritime orientation of this power shift is what makes it a major strategic challenge to Japan. Japan is an island nation, a maritime nation, and one poorly endowed in natural resources at that. Its national well-being relies heavily on external trade, virtually all of which arrives and departs the Japanese archipelago by sea (The Japanese Shipowners'Association, 2014). Most notably, Japan has a near total reliance on crude oil imports, 93% of which seaborne (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015). This maritime nature and strategic reliance on the seas make the stability of Japan's maritime surroundings and along

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China share of USA

Figure 7.2 Defense budgets of the US, China, and Japan

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2019).

Note: Numbers in current USD millions (lines, left Y-axis) and China's defense budget as a percent share of the US’s defense budget (bars, right Y-axis).

its sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) no less than a national security imperative (Bowers & Gronning, 2017). Linking this imperative to Japan's defense doctrine, the 2010 NDPG notes that

Japan, with its vast territorial waters, is a trading nation which heavily depends on imports for the supply of foods and resources and on foreign markets. Thus, securing maritime security and international order is essential for the country's prosperity.

(Ministry of Defense, 2010, p. 4)

Since World War II Japan has ultimately vested the security and its safe use of the seas to a maritime security regime underpinned by US naval dominance supported by substantial indigenous naval capabilities in the region and along its SLOCS (Bowers & Gronning, 2017). China's expanding maritime ambitions and naval power increasingly challenge the foundations of this maritime security regime. Geopolitical developments along its land borders have enabled China, traditionally a continental power, to redirect attention and resources from the Asian continent to the seas of East Asia as the go-to domain in which to expand and pursue China's strategic interests. The primary expression of China’s new maritime orientation is its investment in naval power, replacing and supplementing antiquated assets with large quantities of modern naval platforms (Cole, 2010; Ross, 2009; U.S. Office ofNaval Intelligence, 2015). As two authoritative studies on the subject note, China is ‘building a modern and regionally powerfol navy’ through a ‘naval modernization effort [that] encompasses a broad array of platform and weapon acquisition programs' (O'Rourke, 2016), the result of which is that it now poses a ‘major threat' to foreign naval operations within and possibly beyond 1,000 miles of China's lengthy coastline (Heginbotham et al., 2015, p. 21).

Chinese displays of expanding maritime ambitions and advances in naval capabilities have brought China's tremendous rise to the forefront of Japan's security anxieties (Gronning, 2014, pp. 10-12). China's willingness to use its emerging maritime power to pressurize Japan over conflicting territorial claims in the East China Sea has emerged as the primary manifestation of the inlierent Chinese maritime challenge to Japan’s security (MoFA, 2017c). However, Tokyo’s particular sensitivities and stakes extend also into the neighboring South China Sea, as indicated by the MOD compiling and successive updating of a report on China’s activities in the South China Sea and its implications for Japan's security (Ministry of Defense of Japan, 2019). On the level of perception, the recent blatancy of China’s territorial claims enforcement in the South China Sea has strengthened Japan’s convictions about the coercive inclination of an increasingly powerful China and the challenge it represents to the established regional order. More importantly, China has constructed military-grade facilities and deployed military assets such as runways, air-defense systems, and radars to land reclaimed from maritime features in these disputed waters. This significantly extends the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)'s peacetime ISR capacity and permanent air presence potential, and, by extension its bid for maritime influence and dominance in the South China Sea. This matters greatly to Japan, as it conducts most of its trade, including 81% of its crude oil imports—75% of its total supply—through the South China Sea (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015). In sum, Tokyo perceives China's mode of conduct as a rapidly materializing challenge to a highly favorable status quo (Bowers & Gronning, 2017). As notes MoD (2018, p. 5) in its capstone defense policy document, ‘China engages in unilateral, coercive attempts to alter the status quo based on its own assertions that are incompatible with existing international order.' In their annual white papers, the MoD (2019b, p. 58) and the MoFA (2019c, p. 15) both make similar declarations.

Japan's once euphemistic references to the rise of China and the security implications thereof have gradually shed opacity and grown more confrontational (MoD, 2016, p. 5). Japan has coupled this rhetorical confrontation with an increasingly overt, comprehensive and sustained security policy response. Japan, in short, is responding by augmenting the aggregate power output of the Japan-US alliance and by increasing its regional security involvement (Bowers & Gronning, 2017; Gronning, 2014). As part of the latter, Japan’s security policy is decentering from its Cold War era exclusive focus on the US as its only security partner, and toward building security partnerships with other US security partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam, and, notably, with Russia (Gronning, 2018). Like

Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are regional maritime powers that find themselves at the receiving end of Chinese maritime coercive diplomacy, as detailed by Ministry of Defense of Japan (2019). In developing bilateral security cooperative relations with them, Japan is seeking to diplomatically oppose and tactically complicate what it perceives as Chinese maritime revisionism.

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