Defense Ministry makes its case

China’s increased maritime activities in the East and South China Seas to protect what it calls its “core interests” are causing friction with other countries and destabilizing the security environment in the region. The 2013 Defense Ministry’s white paper underlines Japan’s concern about China’s maritime activities around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. It states that such activities could trigger a crisis and calls on Beijing to act in accordance with international rules rather than to use force.

Japan should be adequately prepared for worst-case scenarios, but it should also take utmost care to not provoke China and further raise tensions. It should deal with China in a coolheaded manner and work to repair the damage to bilateral ties caused by the nationalization of three of the five Senkaku islets in September 2012. To this end, Japan should deepen contact with China at various levels, including contact between defense officials, to prevent an emergency situation from developing.

Referring to repeated intrusion in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands and increased airspace incursions by Chinese ships and aircraft, the white paper calls these activities “dangerous actions that could cause a contingency situation” and said that they are “extremely regrettable.” It also states that “China has attempted to change the status quo by force based on its own assertion, which is incompatible with the existing order of international law.”

China should realize that its aggressive activities could unexpectedly trigger an emergency situation and exercise self-restraint to prevent such an outcome. The white paper mentioned incidents in January in which a Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in the East China Sea and another Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on an MSDF helicopter. China initially denied the allegations but later admitted that they were true in the case of the destroyer. China should realize that such acts constitute armed threats under international law.

China should halt its aggressive activities and, as the white paper points out, also increase the transparency of its defense budget, which has increased roughly four-fold in the past 10 years and is raising concerns throughout the region and in Washington. In July 2011, Japan and China agreed to open a defense hotline, but this has not yet materialized. Both countries should implement this plan and other confidence-building measures as soon as possible.

Regarding North Korea, the white paper said that it may now have a missile that can reach the U.S. West Coast and Midwest. Japan should spare no efforts to build a united front with the United States, China and South Korea to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.

The white paper mentions discussions by lawmakers on whether to allow the Self-Defense Forces to develop the capability to attack a base on enemy territory and to establish a unit similar to the U.S. Marine Corps as well as the Abe administration’s attempt to exercise the right to collective defense, which is banned under the government’s traditional interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. Such activities will convince other countries that Japan has abandoned its traditional defense-only military posture and a destabilizing regional arms race could result.

The white paper asserts that diplomacy alone cannot prevent a military invasion by other countries. But the Defense Ministry would do well to look back on history and remember that military power cannot resolve difficult diplomatic issues. Japan should mobilize all non-military means available to resolve bilateral issues — especially with China — that are raising regional tensions.