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#40 - Japan's Strategic Importance and Possible Peril
危亡 - Wei1 Wang2 - Peril
Japan is a nation bereft of natural resources. As such, it must rely on robust sea-going commerce and seabed internet trunk cables to provide the basic foundations for the survival of its people and the export of its products and services.
Since 1945, the United States Navy has guaranteed freedom of passage and security of global maritime commerce. This massive but little acknowledged undertaking has provided the basis for the largest increase in international trade in the history of mankind, leading to an unparalleled global prosperity. Indeed, even Beijing’s claims of having lifted more than 800 million Chinese citizens out of extreme poverty rests squarely on the broad shoulders of China’s manufacturing industry, which in turn is only possible because of the US Navy’s herculean efforts.
A near miss between the USS Decatur (DDG-73), an American Arleigh-Burke Class destroyer and the Lanzhou (170), a Chinese Luyang II Class destroyer in 2018. The Decatur was conducting a freedom of navigation patrol near the Spratly Islands, ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce.
It must be stressed that these conditions are a historical anomaly. All nations have a myriad of reasons to restrict global commerce in their favor. Yet Washington rarely exercises its powers in this dimension. When it does, the measures are highly targeted, limited, built around consensus, and reversible.
It is in this environment that Japan has thrived along with China and nearly every other nation. Many informed observers before the mid ‘90s/’00s even assessed that the Japanese economy would overtake the United States by the year 2000. While this idea seems laughable today, Japan remains the world’s third largest economy. It has accrued this economic strength by importing the necessities of life (food, energy, raw materials) then exporting some of the world’s most advanced products and services. Japan’s lifelines are those sea lines of communication (SLOC) that support this flow of goods.
If Tokyo’s SLOCs are not open, the grim reality is that the Japanese will slowly starve to death. Large quantities of food must be transported by sea for Japan to feed its 125 million people. This is the baseline fear that has driven Tokyo to develop an entirely new military strategy, released late last year.
There are three drivers of Tokyo’s insecurity. The main one is clearly China, specifically the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA Navy (PLAN) is the largest Navy in the world and growing rapidly with no signs of any abatement in speed of ship/boat construction. Simultaneously, the US Navy (by current estimates) will shrink or modestly grow in the outyears. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is the largest and arguably most advanced offensive ground-based missile force in the world, experiencing the same rapid rate of growth as the PLAN. Finally, the PLA Army (PLAA) is growing more and more capable of fighting decisive ground wars against China’s neighbors, including Taiwan.
The above means that China’s military is increasingly capable of cutting Japan off from the sea. While China may not be able to control Japan’s seas, it can certainly deny them. The situation would be even worse for Japan if China were to seize Taiwan, giving Beijing the capability to transition from sea denial to sea control.
Unfortunately for Tokyo, there is only one sustainable route with the capacity to service Japan’s commercial needs. This SLOC heads south from the Japanese home islands, transiting Taiwan and the seas of the First Island Chain (FIC), funnels through either the Malacca Strait or Sunda Strait, heads west across Sri Lanka and India, again enters a funnel through the Suez Canal, transits the Mediterranean Sea, crosses the Strait of Gibraltar, hugs the channel coast, and ends up in a cluster of Europe’s largest ports in Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Antwerp.
It is this key route (along with the Persian Gulf branch line that connects to it) that Japan depends upon for its existence as an independent country. There are only two other options. One is the arctic route over the top of the North American or Eurasian landmass. However this is only a latent possibility, since the route is only open for a few months each year due to sea ice. Perhaps in the coming decades, this route will open for business.
This leaves the California to Japan route which travels across Alaska and Russia. While it is possible this route could act as an emergency lifeline, it cuts out 14 of Japan’s top 15 trade partners, and is therefore not sustainable over the long term.
Beijing understands this and has been setting the conditions to wrest away greater control and influence of Japan’s southern SLOC for decades. This is almost certainly a major impetus behind the maritime portion of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is investing in major ports and areas strung in close proximity to this SLOC. These sites include the illegal bases on features in the South China Sea as well as Beijing’s BRI/debt trap ports in Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti.
US and Japan - Opportunities and Threats
From Washington’s perspective, Beijing’s military breakout is a historic opportunity to forge closer relationships throughout Asia and the globe. More specifically, China’s menacing behavior towards Japan has allowed for the construction of the closest mutual strategic relationship in the history of Japanese-American relations. However, it must be understood that Japan, while indispensable, is a fragile ally.
The Indispensable Ally
Without access to Japanese islands, the US military does not have the operational endurance to affect events within Northeast Asia. This region includes Washington’s peer pacing adversary (China), the target of China’s wrath (Taiwan), a nation the US is currently in a current proxy war with (Russia), and the key US ally and adversary of South Korea and North Korea, respectively. US supply lines are too long and its Pacific bases too few to be a credible military force in the Western Pacific without Japan.
US Fleet Activities Yokosuka, the HQ and home of US 7th Fleet. It lies at the mouth of Tokyo Bay.
Since execution of large scale military operations in Northeast Asia requires Japan’s cooperation, it is Tokyo that carries the maritime master key to US dominance in the region.
The Fragile Ally
For the above reasons, the US must maintain a deep commitment to Japan. This dependence on Japan has led to Tokyo’s complacency regarding its own military defense. This complacency has in turn led to Tokyo’s dependency on US military power. Even with a new national security strategy, it will take years for Japan to build up its military power.
It is the above variables that lead to a window of maximum vulnerability. China has fielded real military capabilities that outclass what Japan can bring to the table in nearly every dimension of combat power. The US is then forced to defend a weak ally at extreme distance from the continental US while at the same time this ally is announcing to China that it is now significantly upgrading its military.
Such a strategy assumes a risk that Beijing will make a decision to launch a war before the correlation of military forces swings decisively against China. Additional forward deployed conventional US military forces are immediately and sorely required in order to deter China during this window of danger.
The Vulture Ally
While Tokyo carries the master key to US operations in Northeast Asia, it has historically avoided building broad and deep military capabilities (as noted above), preferring to leave this to the United States. During the Cold War, the division of military labor was often analogized to US forces acting as the striking sword and Japanese forces acting as the defensive shield. This is all changing now that Tokyo is significantly upgrading its military.
The Washington Naval Conference, held in Washington, D.C., from 12 Nov 1921, to 6 Feb 1922.
In the future, Tokyo will hold not only the maritime master key, but a growing and capable military force. Where this trendline ends, nobody knows. It has been the policy of the United States to restrain Japan’s military for exactly 100 years, beginning with the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 and ending with US support for Japan’s new military strategy in December of 2022.
While the Japanese-American relationship is indispensable, the US must be aware that Japan is now on a different trajectory. A large-scale war between the US and China would sap Washington’s strength, even if it resulted in American victory. It may not be in the US’ interest for Japan to fill the resulting power vacuum in the Western Pacific. In this way, the US would win the war while Japan would win the peace. Therefore it is of high importance that in any resulting war, Japan shoulders its fair share of the burden. To neglect such allied burden sharing would imperil global stability in any post-war global political construct.