Friday, November 30, 2012

Calling Kido Butai

It seems China's bullying in East Asia has gotten a predictible response. Smaller Asian nations are now coalescing around Japan in an effort to counter the "rising" dragon. And Japan is strengthening itself as part of that effort:
After years of watching its international influence eroded by a slow-motion economic decline, the pacifist nation of Japan is trying to raise its profile in a new way, offering military aid for the first time in decades and displaying its own armed forces in an effort to build regional alliances and shore up other countries’ defenses to counter a rising China.
Already this year, Japan crossed a little-noted threshold by providing its first military aid abroad since the end of World War II, approving a $2 million package for its military engineers to train troops in Cambodia and East Timor in disaster relief and skills like road building. Japanese warships have not only conducted joint exercises with a growing number of military forces in the Pacific and Asia, but they have also begun making regular port visits to countries long fearful of a resurgence of Japan’s military.
And after stepping up civilian aid programs to train and equip the coast guards of other nations, Japanese defense officials and analysts say, Japan could soon reach another milestone: beginning sales in the region of military hardware like seaplanes, and perhaps eventually the stealthy diesel-powered submarines considered well suited to the shallow waters where China is making increasingly assertive territorial claims.
Taken together those steps, while modest, represent a significant shift for Japan, which had resisted repeated calls from the United States to become a true regional power for fear that doing so would move it too far from its postwar pacifism. The country’s quiet resolve to edge past that reluctance and become more of a player comes as the United States and China are staking their own claims to power in Asia, and as jitters over China’s ambitions appear to be softening bitterness toward Japan among some Southeast Asian countries trampled last century in its quest for colonial domination.
The driver for Japan’s shifting national security strategy is its tense dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that is feeding Japanese anxiety that the country’s relative decline — and the financial struggles of its traditional protector, the United States — are leaving Japan increasingly vulnerable.
Why is Japan doing this? In a word, China:
The driver for Japan’s shifting national security strategy is its tense dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that is feeding Japanese anxiety that the country’s relative decline — and the financial struggles of its traditional protector, the United States — are leaving Japan increasingly vulnerable.
“During the cold war, all Japan had to do was follow the U.S.,” said Keiro Kitagami, a special adviser on security issues to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. “With China, it’s different. Japan has to take a stand on its own.”
Japan’s moves do not mean it might transform its military, which serves a purely defensive role, into an offensive force anytime soon. The public has resisted past efforts by some politicians to revamp Japan’s pacifist constitution, and the nation’s vast debt will limit how much military aid it can extend.
But it is also clear that attitudes in Japan are evolving as China continues its double-digit annual growth in military spending and asserts that it should be in charge of the islands that Japan claims, as well as vast swaths of the South China Sea that various Southeast Asian nations say are in their control.
Japanese leaders have met the Chinese challenge over the islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China with an uncharacteristic willingness to push back, and polls show the public increasingly agrees. Both major political parties are also talking openly about instituting a more flexible reading of the constitution that would allow Japan to come to the defense of allies — shooting down any North Korean missile headed for the United States, for instance — blurring the line between an offensive and defensive force.
The country’s self-defense forces had already begun nosing over that line in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Japan backed the United States-led campaigns by deploying naval tankers to refuel warships in the Indian Ocean.
Japanese officials say their strategy is not to begin a race for influence with China, but to build up ties with other nations that share worries about their imposing neighbor. They acknowledge that even building the capacity of other nations’ coast guards is a way of strengthening those countries’ ability to stand up to any Chinese threat.
“We want to build our own coalition of the willing in Asia to prevent China from just running over us,” said Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University in Tokyo.
China, which itself suffered mightily in imperial Japan’s 20th-century territorial grabs, has reacted with warnings that Japan is trying to overturn the outcome of World War II by staging a military comeback. At a defense conference in Australia last month, Lt. Gen. Ren Haiquan of China warned his hosts against allying more closely with what he called a fascist nation that once bombed the Australian city of Darwin.
China calling Japan fascist? China calling anyone fascist? I guess it takes one to know one and all that.

The mention of Darwin was calculated. The Japanese bombing of Darwin (or at least the first Japanese bombing) took place on February 19, 1942. It was a devastating attack that practically destroyed the city, which was more of a town at that time, and sank numerous ships including the US destroyer Peary. The attack by aircraft launched from land bases on Timor as well as four of the six aircraft carriers of the Japanese Carrier Striking Force Kido Butai that had attacked Pearl Harbor. In fact, the February 19, 1942 bombing of Darwin is often called "Australia's Pearl Harbor."

But China reminding everyone of Japan's atrocities to shield its own veiled aggression might backfire inasmuch as there is more than one analyst -- more than just me, that is -- who has compared China today to 1930's Japan.
In a measure of the geopolitical changes roiling the region, however, concerns about any resurgent Japanese militarism appear to be fading in some countries embroiled in their own territorial disputes with China, like Vietnam and the Philippines, the scene of fierce fighting during the war.
Analysts there and elsewhere in the region said their countries welcomed, and sometimes invited, Japan’s help.
“We have already put aside our nightmares of World War II because of the threat posed by China,” said Rommel Banlaoi, a security expert at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research in Manila.
Japan is widely viewed as being the only nation in the region with a navy powerful enough to check China.
Although Japan’s military spending has been shrinking, the military budget is, by many measures, the sixth largest in the world. In keeping with its pacifist stance, Japan has none of the long-range missiles, nuclear submarines or large aircraft carriers necessary for projecting real power. But its diesel-powered subs are considered the best of their type in the world. The Japanese Navy also has sophisticated Aegis-equipped cruisers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, and two large helicopter-carrying destroyers that could be retrofitted to carry fighter jets that can take off vertically.
China's People's Liberation Army Navy (what a stupid name) made news when it purchased an old aircraft carrier from Russia and made it operational. But Japan is decades ahead of China in that regard. Japan's two "large helicopter-carrying destroyers" created guffaws with their official designation. They look like aircraft carriers, and their names, Hyuga and Ise, hearken back to World War II when two sister battleships, also named Hyuga and Ise, were converted to hybrid battleship aircraft carrier-type things. When push comes to shove -- and it will, with China -- they will be quickly converted to carriers handling VTOL aircraft and Kido Butai will be back, but as a shield, not a sword.

Is China getting the message? In a word, no:
Police in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan will board and search ships which enter into what China considers its territorial waters in the disputed South China Sea, state media said.
The South China Sea is Asia's biggest potential military trouble spot with several Asian countries claiming sovereignty.
From January 1, Hainan police will have the authority to board and seize control of foreign ships which "illegally enter" Chinese waters and order them to change course or stop sailing, the China Daily reported.
"Activities such as entering the island province's waters without permission, damaging coastal defence facilities and engaging in publicity that threatens national security are illegal," the English-language newspaper said.
"If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communication systems, under the revised regulations," it added.
China's assertion of sovereignty over the stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.
Oh, and let's not leave out this other tidbit:
China has further angered the Philippines and Vietnam by issuing new passports showing a map depicting China's claims to the disputed waters.
That was a gratuitous shot that has also angered India by showing a province disputed with India as part of China.

Walter Russell Mead, normally much more sanguine about China than he perhaps should be, calls it right:
China’s ham-handed diplomacy in East Asia is doing the unthinkable: it’s making the Japanese military popular in the region. It’s likely that Japan is going to continue increasing military aid and arms sales. It’s also clear that public opinion, both in Japan and elsewhere, now supports Japan’s rearmament in a way not seen since 1945. [...] The Game of Thrones is on, and China can’t seem to stop making moves that strengthen its opponents and threaten to make its worst nightmares come true.

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