The Security Environment in East Asia

The East China Sea dispute presents a major challenge for the US-Japan alliance. This dispute is over the Senkaku (Diayou in Chinese) Islands, a group of five islands in the East China Sea that are uninhabited and currently controlled by Japan, but contested by the People‟s Republic of China and Taiwan.1  The ownership of the islands would provide the  claimants  unrestricted access  to  the  Western  Pacific  ocean.  In  2013,  US  President Obama stated the US stance on the dispute, saying, “Our commitment to Japan‟s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers  all territories under  Japan‟s  administration,  including the Senkaku islands… We don‟t  take a position on final sovereignty on the Senkakus  but historically they‟ve been administered by Japan and should not be subject to change unilaterally.”2

The East China Sea shelf range has 175 trillion to 210 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves according  to  Chinese  surveys,  whereas  foreign  estimates  say  these  are  close  to  100 billion  barrels.  The  Xihu  trough  and  the  Chun  Xiao  reserves  are  predicted  to  contain 17.5 trillion cubic feet and 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves respectively.3  Moreover, estimates indicate that  the Senkaku/ Diayou  seabed has significant  oil resources, with Japanese  surveys  reporting  more  than  94.5  billion  barrels  of  oil.4   Japan  and  China‟s dispute  extends  to  resource  management,  especially  regarding  oil  exploration  and resource  extraction  in  their  waters  by  the  other  side.  This  is  primarily  due  to  the overlapping claims of maritime entitlements by the two countries. An optimal method for avoiding resource disputes would be to ensure proper communication and practice joint  resource  management  until  a  permanent  resolution  is  achieved.5  Until  then,  the East China Sea region will continue to witness security volatility driven by sovereignty and resource causations.

The  dispute  is  significant  even  without  the  economic  aspect.  It  presents  a considerable challenge to Japanese security- not only in terms of territorial sovereignty but   also   with   regard   to   the   national   identity   of   the   Japanese.   Japan‟s   military modernization  is  a  way  of  deterring  China‟s  rise  in  the  region,  and  nationalism  and history  play  a  key  role  in  shaping  the  regional  dynamics.  The  two  factors  have  led  to major  riots  and  heated  arguments  in  the  parliament  over  the  proposed  revision  of Article  9  of  the  Japanese  Constitution.6  Japanese  Prime  Minister  Abe  appears  to  be  a pro-nationalist  leader,  and  his  attempts  to  revise  Article  9  as  well  actions  such  as  his visit  to the Yasukuni shrine raise unpleasant  memories of  pre-World War II militarist Japan, creating concerns not only among the domestic community but across the larger Asia-Pacific.7

How equipped is Japan?

Prior to discussions on the revision of Article 9, the Japanese government has already taken some steps towards an increased level of military autonomy. Japan‟s State Secrets Law, also known as the Special Secrecy Law, came into effect in 2013. It allows certain information  to  be  classified  by  the  government,  and  this  was   interpreted  by  the Japanese media and people to be a tool of democratic compromise and a violation of the people‟s right to information. Since then the law has faced backlash and led to reduction in government approval ratings by almost 10 per cent.8  However, the law is essential in the  highly  hierarchical  and  bureaucratic  system  of  the  Japanese  government  that involves dissemination across multiple levels of agencies at several levels, thus requiring some  mechanism  to  prevent  unintended  breach  of  information.  The  law  reduces  the probability of information exposure due to political osmosis and also speeds up policy implementation.

Within  this  law  is  an  underlying  element  of  Japan  taking  responsibility  for insulating    state    information,    which    is    a    fundamental    component    of    military independence   and   self-determination.   Certain   other   developments   under   the   Abe administration   are   prognostic   of   Japan‟s   move   toward   „normalcy‟   and   military independence,    leading    to    apprehension    regarding    the    nullification    of    Japan‟s constitutional  resolution  to  renounce  war  and  not  maintain  an  offensive  armed  force (revised to not maintaining an offensive armed force- leading to the establishment of the Self-Defence  Forces).  This  includes  the  creation  of  the  National  Security  Council,  an organization “spanning government departments and shouldering the responsibility for an integrated foreign and security policy, under the guidance of the Prime Minister.”9

Japan  has  also  articulated  a  National  Security  Strategy  as  a  security  guide,  a reviewed  defence  guidelines  titled  „National  Defence  Program  Guidelines  for  FY2014 and  Beyond‟, the Three Principles on Transfer of  Defence  Equipment  and Technology, and the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security. These may not be remarkable developments when compared to the rest of the world, but for a country lacking  a  security  architecture  for  several  decades,  it  is  an  important  step  towards becoming  a  „normal‟  country.  Furthermore,  in  2015,  the  United  States  and  Japan reviewed  and  modified  the  US-Japan  Defence  Guidelines.10    The  National  Security Strategy  encourages  „active  pacifism‟  that  refutes  disarmament  as  the  only  way  to practice   pacifism   and   avoid   militarism.11    The   strategy   outlines   three   objectives: addressing the necessity for ensuring deterrence, promoting secure regional politics in the  Asia-Pacific  region,  and  contributing  to  global  security  and  peacekeeping.  The document  also  talks  about  the  need  to  strengthen  the  US-Japan  alliance.  US  foreign policy  in  Asia  is  highly  contingent  to  the  US-Japan  alliance  forged  at  the  end  of  the Second World War.12 The partnership has so far been highly beneficial to both parties.13

Is the US Security Umbrella Sufficient?

The 21st century presents several challenges to the US-Japan alliance. US policies seem to  indicate  a  greater  amenability  to  accommodate  the  growing  changes  in  the  region. The  rise  of  China,  militarily  and  economically,  has  compelled  the  two  allies  to  create robust  and  more  deliberate  alliance  mechanism  and  operations.  This  is  even  more critical with increasing tensions in the East China Sea. Other constraints include Japan‟s slow and vulnerable economic revival and the process of American economic recovery, and  in  both  cases,  domestic  demands  have  the  potential  to  slow  down  foreign  policy aspirations.  Japan‟s  volatile  political  system,  evident  by  unstable  coalition  politics  and the short ruling terms, are not favourable for making a coherent and long-term foreign policy.   Similarly,   the   current   US   administration   faces   the   challenge   of   balancing domestic politics and the larger aims of the rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy. Moreover, the alliance does not comprehensively cover  issues such as humanitarian support that are  important  in  the  current  world  order,  thus  providing  a  new  dimension  to  the exercise of the alliance.14

After the draining effects of two long wars, the US military is trying to consolidate and determine the usage of its military capabilities in an austere fiscal environment. US military resources are already overstretched due to reducing military budgets relative to the   technological   development   of   arms   and   deployment   costs.   There   is   also   the possibility of distractions from emergent threats like the current US involvement against ISIS.  These  could  undermine  the  promises  of  the  revised  US-Japan  security  alliance, leading  to  a  security  predicament  and  under  preparation  for  Japan,  especially  when faced with a looming China capable of pursuing unilateral actions due to its escalating military advancement and economic might.

The US-Japan Alliance as a Security Provider

Even though a „normal‟ Japan may exist at some time in the future, it would be too risky to  depend  solely  on  this  possibility  and  divert  from the  proven  advantages  of  the  US- Japan alliance. It is important to utilize the strength and capability of the alliance to not only achieve Japan‟s security interests (the East China Sea dispute being a major one), but  also  speed  up  the  process  of  Japan‟s  path  to  „normalcy‟.  It  is  essential  for  the  US- Japan  alliance  to  become  more  institutionalized,  comprehensive,  and  permitting  of  a less passively pacifist form of military development in Japan.15

The  claims  that  US  support  of  an  increasingly  independent  Japanese  military could  lead  to  Japan  reverting  back  to  its  militaristic  past  are  misplaced.  Several countries have participated in war in the past, but Japan has been paying the price for being  on  the  losing  side  for  longer  than  any  one  of  its  allies.  The  Japanese  cultural concept of „saving face‟ led to Japan accepting Article 9 despite being a sovereign nation.

The  world  order  today  demands  accountability  and  is  increasingly  anarchic.  Waltz‟s infamous   and   maximalist   nuclear   deterrence   argument16    can   be   modified   as   per conventionality  for  applicability  in  this  scenario:  a  Japan  with  military  capability  like every  other  nation  in  the  Asia-Pacific  and  beyond  will  actually  contribute  to  peace, security  and  stability.  It  would  deter  China‟s  assertiveness  in  the  region,  aid  the  US rebalance, and consequently ensure security of other surrounding countries that might not  be  as  militarily  strong  as  China  or  Japan.  It  would  also  help  Japan  face  the increasingly important issue of a nuclear and unstable North Korea. Providing military support  to  South  Korea  in  case  of  conflict  between  the  two  Koreas  would  enable betterment  of  the  current  difficult  relations.  Extending  this  argument  further,  it  is preferable to have multiple nations with military power to create a sensitive yet highly stable  form  of  deterrence  where  another‟s  weapons  will  prevent  each  from  using  their own.17

Military power is also essential in ensuring safety of passage and trade routes in the  extremely  busy  western  Pacific  Ocean  through  resolution  of  the  Senkaku/Diayou Islands  dispute,  sea  patrols,  and  anti-piracy  measures.  Maritime  security  is  especially important  to  ensure  the  success  of  the  Trans-Pacific  Partnership  (TPP)  wherein  the participating   countries   account   for   26   per   cent   of   the   world‟s   trade,   793   million consumers,   and  40  per  cent  of  the  world‟s  total  GDP.18   The  partnership  aims  to strengthen  the  US-Japan  alliance  and  trade  relations,  help  regenerate  the  Japanese economy,  benefit  the  United  States‟  Asia  rebalance  strategy,  create  a  structure  that would   bring   together   several   Asia-Pacific   countries   in   one   of   the   biggest   trade partnerships in the world, contribute toward economic development in the region, and deter the monopoly of China owing to its huge economic strength. A militarily stronger Japan  would  lead  to  a  more  balanced  political  and  economic  structure  in  Asia.  As  an analyst  states,  “unlike  China,  Japan  is  a  country  that  seeks  alliances  and  naturally wishes to be part of a system, not a solitary player.”19

In the current times we can definitely see a stronger US-Japan alliance, especially in  the  military  context.  According  to  the  2014  „Defence  of  Japan‟  released  annually  by the  Japanese  Ministry  of  Defence,  the  US  deployment  status  in  Japan  has  evolved  to include advanced assets such as the F-22, MV-22 Ospreys, P-8, and the Global Hawk. 20

Two  Aegis  BMDs  are  expected  to  be  permanently  deployed  by  2017.  The  document states that a nation cannot develop stable defence measures on its own, and therefore acknowledges  the  significance  of  alliances  in  maintaining  security  interests  in  the increasingly volatile East Asia to not only defend Japan, but also secure the Asia-Pacific region. Close coordination within the US-Japan alliance would form the “foundation for various forms of international collaboration….which leads to the heightened operational effectiveness  of  the  Japan-US  Security  Arrangement”.21  The  document  also  recognizes that  the  American  influence  may  be  changing  relatively  however,  according  to  the Quadrennial  Defence  Review  (QDR)  released  by  the  United  States  in  2014,  the  Asia Rebalance  Strategy  and  the  security  alliance  with  Japan  continue  to  be  essential components of the US Department of Defence‟s security strategy.22  The general nature of  Article  9  has  been  accommodated  to  state  in  the  document  that  Japanese  Self- Defence Forces can participate along with US forces to respond to issues regarding the “peace and security of the Far East Region to which Japan belongs”.23  This can also be seen  in  the  National  Security  Strategy  that  reiterates  the  necessity  of  developing  the Self-Defence Forces and maintaining a comprehensive architecture to ensure readiness and flexibility in security issue responses. 24  It  also  expresses  the  importance  of  „Open and  Stable  Seas‟  to  Japan,  stating  that  Japan  would  provide  assistance  and  “enhance maritime  law  enforcement  and  cooperation  with  partners  on  sea  lanes  who  share strategic interests with Japan”. 25

The   recently   released   2015   Guidelines   for   Japan-US   Defence   Cooperation emphasize  the  need  for  a  more  pro-active  Japan,  allowing  the  Japanese  Self-Defence Forces   to   go   beyond   their   traditionally   expected   duties   in   accordance   with   the constitution.26  The  „Alliance  Coordination  Mechanism‟  aims  to  develop  a  stronger  and more  interactive  policy  and  operational  coordination  during  peacetime  as  well  as conflict. These guidelines repeatedly mention the rising security concerns for Japan, and articulate the importance of bilateral planning and training to ensure proper planning and execution.27  Especially in the maritime context, plans for development in the fields of  intelligence,  surveillance,  air  and  naval  equipment,  reciprocal  asset  protection  and logistic  assistance,  etc.  can  be  seen.  Some  noteworthy  points  include  the  provision  of higher  responsibility  of  defence  to  the  Japanese  forces  for  immediate  response  to  an attack  on  Japanese  sovereignty  after  exhausting  any  alternative,  chiefly  diplomatic, methods  of  resolution.  This  emphasizes  the  Japanese  commitment  to  pacifism  that  is nevertheless  informed  and  equipped  in  accordance  with  the  security  demands  of  the region. Another area where Japanese forces can exercise operations is in the Air Defence Zones,  and  these  include  use  of  ballistic  and  cruise  missiles.  This  could  be  seen  as  a response  to  the  problem  of  the  overlapping  Chinese  Air  Defence  Identification  Zone (ADIZ).  The  Guidelines  also  assert  the  significance  of  ensuring  freedom  of  navigation and  protecting  Japanese  waters  and  trade  routes.  This  is  even  more  important  in  the near future with Japan‟s import and export based economy being a major participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


It is essential for Japan to continue expansion of provisions within the Constitution as Japanese Prime Minister Abe has demonstrated by revamping the security architecture of  Japan,  advance  the  US-Japan  alliance  to  accommodate  these  provisions  (positive predictions can be made from the revised 2015 guidelines), and engage in international military exercises. With an understanding of how critical it is for Japan to become more militarily  secure  and  strengthen  its  alliance  with  the  United  States,  a  stronger  Japan that  may  be  able  to alleviate  tensions  in  the  East  China  Sea  dispute  can  be  predicted. This  may  be  a  chance  for  Japan  to  attain  its  goal  of  becoming  a  „normal‟  country,  by playing  a  more  significant  role  in  world  affairs  and  becoming  an  important  player  in matters of Asia-Pacific security. This may also ease the Japanese people as well as the rest of the world towards the idea of a Japan with military capability but the wisdom to not revert back to its World War II days. A stronger Japan and US-Japan alliance would lead  to  multiple  beneficial  consequences  that  go  beyond  advantages  for  not  just  the involved  countries  by  ensuring  a  stable  balance  of  power  in  the  China  Seas  and preventing unilateral actions by any one country.

About the Author 

The author is Research Intern, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are  her  own  and  do  not  reflect  the  official  policy  or  position  of  the  NMF.  She  can  be  reached  at


1  They were taken under national control by the Japanese according to terra nullius (nobody‟s land) in 1895. The Qing dynasty ceded the southern portion of the province of Fêngtien, the island of Formosa and the islands appertaining or belonging to the island of Formosa, and the Pescadores Group to the Japanese government according to the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895. The Treaty was renounced post World War II, and since Japan did not consider the Senkaku/Diayou Islands to be a part of the treaty but a sovereign right of the country through terra nullius, the dispute over possession of the islands continues to this day. The People‟s Republic of China (and Taiwan) claim ownership of the islands, and justify this according to discovery rights, historical occupation, and by-products of an unequal treaty, at and

2  Justin McCurry, Tania Branigan, „Obama says US will defend Japan in island dispute with China‟, The Guardian, 24 April 2014, at status-quo-in-island-dispute-with-china (Accessed 10 July 2015)

3  Selig Harrison, „Seabed Petroleum in Northeast Asia: Conflict or Cooperation?‟, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2005 at  (Accessed June 15, 2015)

4  Ibid.

5 As an analyst contends, “Governments in Tokyo and Beijing have the option of nuancing their actions, and even favour cooperative forms of interactions. In this respect, “natural resources can be shared” and past willingness to jointly investigate and explore gas fields would suggest that the existence of an agreement over the boundary dispute is not regarded as a precondition for economic cooperation.” See Alessi Patalano, „Seapower and Sino-Japanese Relations in the East China Sea‟, Asian Affairs, Vol. XLV, No. 2, 2014, pp. 34–54.

6   Article  9  in  the  Japanese  Constitution  states  “Aspiring  sincerely  to  an  international  peace  based  on justice and  order, the Japanese  people forever  renounce war  as  a sovereign  right of the  nation  and  the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land,  sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The  right  of  belligerency  of  the  state  will  not  be  recognized.”  It  was  a  result  of  the  Yoshida  Doctrine developed  in  1951  that  encouraged  single-minded  economic  progress  unhindered  by  security  concerns since American deployment could manage that.

See  The  Constitution  of  Japan,  promulgated  on  November  3,  1946;  Came  into  effect  on  May  3,  1947


7  For example, neighbour country South Korea to this day demands apology, acceptance, informational accuracy, and reparations concerning the comfort-women controversy.

8  Shinichi Kitaoka, „A “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Right of Collective Self-Defence: The Development of Security Policy in the Abe Administration‟, Asia-Pacific Review, Vol.21, No.2, 2014, pp. 1−18.

9  Ibid.

10  Ibid.

11  Quoting from the translated document, “surrounded by an increasingly severe security environment and confronted by complex and grave national security challenges, it has become indispensable for Japan to make more proactive efforts in line with the principle of international cooperation”, (emphasis added). Ministry of Defence, Japan, National Security Strategy of Japan, at

12  Signed in 1951 and revised in 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security grants the United States the right to military bases on the archipelago in exchange for a US. pledge to defend Japan in the event of an attack.

13  Exemplified by the strong American presence in the Korean War, deterrence of major proliferation of Russian and Chinese communism in Asia, the economic boom in Japan in the Cold War era, the ability of Japan to deter anti-security processes despite lacking official armed forces while existing in a volatile political region (rising China, nuclearizing North Korea), collaboration during the Gulf and Iraq wars, etc. Sheila Smith, „Feeling the Heat: Asia’s Shifting Geopolitics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance.‟,  Council on Foreign Relations, 9 July 2013, at japan-alliance/p31194, accessed 11 June 2015

14  Ibid.

15  It is necessary for the United States to “strengthen its relationships with the region across various dimensions and issue areas, not only through verbal commitments but through concrete action. It should try to build a system for regional cooperation and integration so as to become a real „resident power‟ in the region. The United States should operationalize its stated commitment to the region.”

Choi Kang, „A Changing East Asia and U.S. Foreign Policy‟, Council for Foreign Relations, May 2012, at, accessed 22 May 2015.

16  A world with nuclear weapons is safer than one with selective nuclear capability- “mutually assured destruction creates a more secure environment” See Gideon Hanft, „Rationality and Nuclear Weapons: Revisiting Kenneth Waltz.‟ Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, 24 October 2011 at, accessed 5 July 2015.

17  Ibid.

18  Lydia DePillis, „Everything you need to know about the Trans Pacific Partnership‟, The Washington Post, 12 November 2013, at the-trans-pacific-partnership/ accessed 12 June 2015.

19  Arthur Waldron, „Japan’s Choices in a Changed Security Environment‟, Asia-Pacific Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2014, pp. 195−212.

20  „Defence of Japan 2014: Celebrating the 40th issue milestone‟, Ministry of Defence, Japan.

21  Ibid.

22  “60% of US Navy assets will be stationed in the Pacific by 2020 including enhancements to its critical naval presence in Japan, and the Air Force will move forces such as ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets to the region.”


23  Ibid.

24  „National Security Strategy of Japan‟, Ministry of Defence, Japan, at

25  Ibid.

26  The Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation, at–


27  Ibid.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *