Arms Race Coming in Asia?

The East and South China Seas face the possibility of a growing arms race between Japan, China and other countries, according to a new policy research paper released by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The paper, A Tale of Two Conflicts, written by Ian Forsyth, an analyst at the US Pacific Command in Hawaii and a visiting fellow at the school, states that “if Japan’s relative military capability is what makes China more cautious in regards to Japan than with Vietnam or the Philippines, then in theory, the only solution to prevent a major conflict is a high quality military, which could doom the region to an ongoing arms race of quality to balance China’s quantity.”

Indeed, Japan has already embarked on a major enlargement of its coast guard – its de facto navy – to meet the Chinese challenge.

China’s modern economic and military rise has been meteoric in historical terms, in reality not beginning before Deng Xiaoping opened the country to the west in the 1970s. Its expansionist policies in the East and South China Seas date even later than that. As Forsyth points out, “As if in tandem with one another, the rise of tensions in the East and South China Seas has been capturing headlines [only] since 2009.”

Despite its post-WWII pacifist constitution, Japan, as he writes, is a much more formidable military opponent than either Vietnam or the Philippines, both of which have collided with China over resources in the South China Sea.

“The commonalities and differences between these two regional disputes reveal much about which dispute is more likely to erupt into conflict and if conflict were to erupt, which dispute would prove more catastrophic,” the policy paper notes. “The presence of an intense anti-Japan nationalism in China points to the East China Sea being more likely to erupt into conflict than the South China Sea disputes.”

Despite that, Japan’s comparative military prowess plus a seemingly unshakable military alliance with the US that goes back decades, “imposes a sobriety on China’s decision-makers, making that region less likely to erupt into conflict than the South China Sea dispute.”

The fact is that the countries of Southeast Asia, particularly as their economic status has improved, have been arming themselves to the teeth for decades, although size along keeps them from matching either Japan or China,

Vietnam, as Forsyth notes, “has only a respectable military force,” with just 20 ships, 10 amphibious craft and three submarines. Its air force consists of 418 attack aircraft; 160 support craft; and 30 helicopters. In an effort to bolster Vietnam’s defense capability, in October 2014, the US relaxed its arms embargo on Vietnam, which has been place since 1984.

The Philippines armed forces are perhaps even less impressive than Vietnam’s, with 20 ships and 10 amphibious craft as well as just 10 trainer aircraft but no combat planes, 32 support craft and 88 helicopters, most of them Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters. However, Manila expects to increase its defense budget by 81 percent from 2011 by 2017.

In contrast, Japan’s military is an order of magnitude greater than either Vietnam’s or the Philippines’ with three helicopter carriers, 42 destroyers, six frigates; and 16 submarines.Its air force includes 510 combat aircraft, 260 of them fighter jets.

The Japan Coast Guard, the country’s de facto navy, has been building up its capability for the long-term defense of the contested Senkaku islets, which the Chinee call the Diaoyus. The Coast Guard’s budget was increased by 5.5 percent in 2014 in a bid to meet the Chinese challenge. That budget augmentation will pay for10 large patrol vessels plus two vessels capable of carrying helicopters which will be renovated by the end of fiscal 2015. Four of the new vessels are scheduled to enter service in 2014.

To respond to what could be “more urgent situations,” the coast guard also plans to build an additional six large and four medium-sized patrol boats, and to upgrade two existing vessels capable of carrying helicopters to back up the special unit.

“In sum, Japan’s military and coast guard forces pose a much greater threat to the Chinese military than Vietnam or the Philippines. “

In the middle of this is the United States military, which has forcefully said it would help to defend the islets.

“Beijing is on notice that an attempt to acquire the Diaoyus/Senkakus by force could mean a fight not only with Japan and its modern navy, air force and coast guard, but with the U.S. military as well,” Forsyth writes. “Compounding this is the fact the US has forces stationed throughout Japan that can be rapidly mobilized in the event of a Sino-Japan conflict.”

The US commitment to the Philippines is somewhat more equivocal. The country is in the middle of renegotiating a status of forces agreement now that would provide a clearer arrangement between the two. Nonetheless, as Forsyth points out, the Philippines alliance with the US is less foreboding to Beijing.

What is clear is that the disputes in both areas will be resolved via formal adjudication of maritime and sovereignty rights although “given the political realities of the region, particularly in China, this is virtually impossible. As such, the most that can be expected at this point is baby steps of conflict prevention and conflict de-escalation. The commonalities between the disputes provide certain limited opportunities to cultivate a foundation for conflict prevention in both regions.”

The local parties themselves need to drive the effort to cool the situation “Among the steps both South and East China Sea claimants could take are Incidents at Sea Agreements, particularly between China and Japan. Another is the establishment of hotlines. Malaysia and Indonesia have one, and Japan has one with Russia and South Korea.”

In 2006 Tokyo and Beijing reached consensus in principle on establishing such a communications line, but it wasn’t until November last year that State Councillor Yang Jiechi held talks with visiting National Security Advisor of Japan Shotaro Yachi in Beijing and drafted a four-point communiqué, which among other things, revitalized the prospects of an active hotline between the two governments in the case of an emergency.

“Japan has responsibilities as well. Tokyo should refrain from taking unilateral steps to solidify its sovereignty claims, such as deploying JSDF personnel on the islands, constructing a port of refuge for fishing boats, upgrading the islands’ lighthouse, or deploying civil servants to manage and preserve the islands’ forestry endowment or survey its marine resources,” Forsyth writes., “Furthermore, Tokyo should integrate the ‘differing positions’ point of the communiqué into its official vernacular regarding the Diaoyus/Senkakus.”

That could act as a de facto dispute acknowledgement without losing face, paving the way for bilateral negotiations and even commencing legal actions. Both could also stipulate that regardless of sovereign title, the Diaoyus/Senkakus do not generate an exclusive economic zone for either.

“This issue must be handled distinctly from demarcation of the sea and from the issue of sovereignty of the islets. While it is not likely that neither the East China Sea nor the South China Sea will witness the best of times in the near future the nature of the conflicts does not preclude preventing the worst of times. However, all parties involved must labour to prevent the worst of times from coming about.”