On Jan. 12, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera observed the annual drill held by the Ground Self-Defense Force’s elite 1st Airborne Brigade in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture.
Dozens of paratroopers jumped out of aircraft and helicopters flying 340 meters above and landed on the exercise area.
Some were wearing wet suits, implying that in an actual combat operation, they may have to jump into the sea. Overhead, Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft flew by.
The drill was premised on a scenario in which the Self-Defense Forces had to recapture a remote island that was occupied by an enemy. The enemy was never officially specified, but the goal of the exercise was obvious to any observer: Defend the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from the Chinese military.
The drill was especially significant to Onodera. Earlier in the day, three Chinese Coast Guard ships intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus, pressing Beijing’s claim to the Japan-controlled uninhabited islets.
“Today, Chinese government ships intruded into the territorial sea around the Senkakus for the first time this year,” Onodera told reporters after the exercise.
“The role of the 1st Airborne Brigade will become more important than ever,” he said.
But in recent interviews with The Japan Times, experts and former SDF officers warned that Japan alone would be unable to defend the Senkakus if a full-fledged war breaks out, given the overwhelming number of modern Chinese fighters deployed at Chinese bases on the continent and ready to fly over the East China Sea.
Japan would find no choice but seek the U.S. military’s help to defend the Senkakus if China ever fully mobilizes its military to attack the islets, the experts and retired officers said.
And whether the U.S. would actually engage China in a battle to defend the small uninhabited islets would remain unclear until the very last moment, they said.
“Given the current conditions, Japan (alone) would never be able to defend the Senkakus,” said Ikuo Kayahara, a retired GSDF major general and a professor emeritus at Takushoku University in Tokyo. Kayahara is widely regarded as one of the most prominent Japanese experts on the Chinese military.
“To recapture a remote island, you need to first win air superiority over the area, and then maritime control,” he said.
Echoing many other experts, Kayahara said he does not believe the top leaders of China or Japan are willing to start a war over the Senkakus, if only to avoid the economic and political consequences of such action, let alone the collateral damage.
But Kayahara warned that a military clash, particularly in the air, could in fact take place, even if only by accident. This would fan nationalism in both countries and could escalate into a war.
“Japan and China don’t have crisis-management systems to contain such an accidental clash. In that sense, we are in a very dangerous situation,” said Kayahara, calling on Tokyo and Beijing to set up hotlines between their top military leaders and with front-line commanders.
Military analysts agree that the Maritime Self-Defense Force, in particular its ultra-quiet submarines, have maintained an advantage over the Chinese navy in the East China Sea because many of China’s vessels are equipped with older or outdated air-defense and radar systems.
But China is believed to have deployed about 180 of its mainstay fourth-generation fighter jets in the Nanjing Military Region, and all are capable of reaching the Senkakus, about 420 km away from the nearest Chinese air base on the continent.
Meanwhile Japan has only about 20 F-15s, which possess a combat capability comparable to the 180 modern Chinese fighters — at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Naha Base in Okinawa, also about 420 km away from the Senkakus.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to double the number to 40 under the new five-year defense buildup program, but China will still have air superiority over the East China Sea, said Shunji Taoka, a noted military journalist and former senior writer for the daily Asahi Shimbun.
“If you lose air superiority, you can’t operate surface ships to defend a remote island,” Taoka said.
According to the Military Balance, an annual assessment of nations’ military capabilities published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China has deployed four to five air regiments of fourth-generation fighters, including the powerful Su-27, Su-30, J-10 and J-11 aircraft, in the Nanjing Military Region, which faces Taiwan, the nearby Senkakus and other islands.
According to Taoka and other experts, a typical Chinese air regiment reportedly consists of 36 fighters. Based on this assumption, the total number of modern fighters in the region is estimated at around 180.
Taoka has pointed out that Beijing has put particular emphasis on strengthening its air force in the Nanjing Military Region, which faces Taiwan. The region covers Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces.
“If (the Chinese military) launches a full-fledged operation, we would be in big trouble. We would definitely need (the involvement) of the U.S. military forces” to defend the Senkakus, retired Adm. Kazuya Natsukawa, former chairman of the SDF’s joint staff, said during a recent interview.
But Kayahara, Taoka and Natsukawa all believe the U.S. might not engage in a full-fledged war against China to defend the small uninhabited islets, which have little importance for Washington.
The Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if it comes under attack.
But Taoka pointed out that despite the treaty, the U.S. president could technically avoid sending American forces to the Senkakus by seeking the approval of Congress, which Taoka says would probably turn down the president’s request.
Taoka also argued that the U.S. would try to avoid being dragged into a war with China over the tiny Japanese islets and sacrificing its vital economic interests in China.
Kayahara said he believes the U.S. would at least deploy aircraft carriers near the Senkakus as a show of force to avoid losing the trust of its military allies in Asia, including South Korea. But whether it would engage in a war with China would remain unclear until the last moment, he said.
The most realistic scenario that Natsukawa and other SDF officers are worried about is, however, not an all-out military attack, but a Senkakus incursion involving hundreds of small fishing vessels with paramilitary troops aboard, Natsukawa said.
In 1978, more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels, many of them armed with machine guns, intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the islets to protest Japan’s control over the Senkakus, which dates to 1895. China only started to claim the islets in the early 1970s.
If this were to happen again, Japan may not immediately and officially be able to determine whether those aboard the vessels are military forces, and this could delay any SDF mobilization, he said.
“If numerous fishing ships come, some of them would get past (Japan’s defenses) and some may land on an island,” Natsukawa said.
“That would pose a big problem (to the government). Should we use military force to repel them? It’d be a difficult decision to make,” Natsukawa said.
Kayahara argued the best policy for Japan is not to provoke China and not to provide ammunition for Beijing to criticize and isolate Japan internationally.
In that context, Abe should have not visited war-related Yasukuni Shrine, he said.
“Many Japanese believe Japan is a big, strong power, but it’s not as far as national security is concerned,” he said.
Japan should put priority on maintaining the Japan-U.S. military alliance to keep China in check, but Abe ignored U.S. advice not to visit Yasukuni and has thus damaged his reputation in the U.S., Kayahara said.