Japan's sabre rattling

Japan's sabre rattling

The white paper named China as the key concern because of its ‘dangerous’ actions at sea and air as it seeks to exert control.

The Japanese government released the defence white paper 2014 on August 5. The significant tenor of the defence document was how Japan must bolster its vigilance against China’s maritime provocations.

In recent times, China has been proceeding with its maritime expansion through force of arms and engaged in relentless surge of provocative actions towards its neighbouring countries, thereby causing a sense of unease. In the wake of this development, the white paper seeks cooperation with other nations concerned.

In November 2013, China unilaterally declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. The white paper termed it as dangerous, adding that the Chinese move could result in “unintended consequences” and expressed strong concern over China’s expansion of military power.

Japan is understandably concerned that China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea includes the Senkaku Islands, “as if they were a part of China’s territory”, and preparing to appropriately respond when necessary. Indeed, China’s actions are destabilising the security environment surrounding Japan.

Indeed, China’s assertion of maritime claims is counter to existing order of international law. In May and June 2014, Chinese fighter jets flew abnormally close to air self-defence forces planes in area where Japan’s ADIZ and China’s ADIZ overlap.

Air self-defence force jets confirmed for the first time passage of China’s early-warning aircraft in July 2013 and bombers in September over waters between Okinawa Island and Miyakojima Island and over the Pacific Ocean.

According to the white paper, the ASDF scrambled its fighter jets 810 times in fiscal 2013 in response to growing activity by the Chinese and Russian military, including their aircraft deployment. It was for the first time since fiscal 1989, the ASDF planes scrambled more than 800 times.

Besides China’s assertive behaviour, North Korea’s actions are also a cause of worry. In early parts of 2014, Pyongyang successfully fired short-and medium-range ballistic missiles. Its confidence level has considerably increased after the performance of its missiles, whose types have also been diversified.

The white paper therefore raised concern that North Korea may commit more military provocations, stemming from its overconfidence and misconception of its military power, thereby aggravate circumstances and create a messy situation.

For the first time, the white paper mentioned “gray-zone” incidents. Gray-zone incidents refer to infringements that do not involve the use of force. This was a clear reference to China as China is making many attempts to alter the existing order with a view to obtain economic interests, with potential seeds of triggering gray-zone incidents.


In reference to the government’s decision of July 1 allowing the country limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence, the white paper termed it as “historic” as the move of the Abe government is to further bolster Japan’s peace and safety.

Security concerns

Though the white paper categorically named China as the key concern because of the latter’s ‘dangerous’ actions at sea and air as it seeks to exert control in waters around Japan and elsewhere in the region, it also listed North Korea and Russia as contributing to the region’s ‘increasingly severe’ security environment.

Though Japan’s annual defence reports in recent years have become the routine platform for Tokyo to voice its security concerns, the section on the Chinese military got significantly larger space this year because of what Tokyo says has been China’s increased intrusion into Japanese territory both in the air and at sea. The report warned China against its attempts to change the status quo, and called on Beijing to observe international norms.

The white paper also urged the Chinese military to be more transparent, both about its hardware and intentions in the region, as Japan fears that there is a trend towards arms buildup and modernisation by neighbouring countries in response to their perceptions of threat from China.

As usual, the response from Beijing was on the expected line. The Chinese defense ministry was quick to accuse Japan of deliberately embellishing the threat the Chinese military poses to adjust its military and security policies. Chinese security analysts read the report as another sign of prime minister Abe Shinzo’s effort to turn Japan into a regional military power.

While China is free to interpret Japan’s policy the way it likes, this is clearly not the case in the eyes of a neutral observer. It is unfortunate that ties between Tokyo and Beijing have been seriously strained since Abe assumed office in December 2012. The shadow of history, the legacy of Japan’s wartime aggression, visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japan’s political leaders, comfort women issue, and a dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea continue to fray ties.

On more than one occasion, Abe has expressed desire to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is believed to have sent a personal message to Xi, saying the two leaders should meet to repair bilateral relations. With sincere intentions to mend ties with China, Abe conveyed the message through former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda who secretly met with Xi in late July as chairman of the nongovernmental Boao Forum for Asia.

It remains unclear if Xi will agree to meet with Abe on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Beijing in November, as proposed by Japan.

Since both countries are at odds over territory and views on history, China has said there will be no bilateral summit unless Japan acknowledges a territorial dispute over the Senkaku group of islands in the East China Sea and Abe promises not to visit the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Japan insists that the two leaders should meet without preconditions. With both sides hardening their positions, a summit meeting even in November seems unlikely. In the larger interests of peace in the region, it is desirable that both sides show some flexibility and try to find a middle path.