The Heat Rises in Japan

China’s recent declaration creating an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large portion of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands, has been a feast day in Japan for arm-chair strategists, would-be thriller writers, retired generals and other assorted defense analysts and pundits.

In the wake of China’s declaration, five of Japan’s seven national weekly magazines published articles proposing various scenarios for a new Sino-Japanese War breaking out over the disputed islands. Can a book, or several books on the coming Sino-Japanese War of 2014 be far behind? Besides the weeklies other pundits charged in with various scenarios.

The War is Boring website postulates a swirling, high-tech dogfight over the East China Sea, involving Japanese F-15 Eagles, American F-22 Raptors and Chinese fighters. Several Japanese and one American fighter are shot down, but the Chinese lose several more. Round One goes to the Japanese-American team.

Shukan Gendai, a weekly tabloid speculates that war would break out after China’s President Xi Jinping orders that a Japanese civilian jetliner be shot down after declining to identify itself while crossing the Chinese ADIZ on a flight to Japan. Currently, civilian airliners are supposed to file flight plans and respond to inflight directions.

The Sunday Mainichi, one of Japan’s national newspapers, ran an article with the ominous headline: “Sino-Japanese War to Break Out in January”. It goes on to postulate that a collapsing Chinese economy might persuade China’s autocrats that war against the despised Japanese might take people’s attention away from their trouble.

Many serious military analysts have been sounding off on the strengths and weaknesses of the two- (or three-) sided conflicts. In their collective view, China has the advantage of holding numerous air bases or potential bases relatively close to the prospective battlefield, while Japan has a qualitative edge on its aircraft and naval vessels.

The Japanese air force at the moment maintains only one squadron of 20 F-15s at Naha, the capital and largest city of Okinawa, and aircraft and pilots must be getting worn down through the almost daily scrambles to investigate intruders over the Senkaku air space. They will be reinforced next year by a second squadron of 20 aircraft.

Japan can call on aerial reinforcements from other parts of the country, but they would still be constrained by lack of bases near the combat zone. That weakness would, of course, be easily filled by one or more American aircraft carriers, each of which has about 70 aircraft, should the United States be drawn into the conflict.

And it is likely that the US will be drawn in. Washington’s official position is illogical in that it professes to be neutral about who owns the Senkaku, while at the same time asserting that they, like the rest of Japan, would fall under the protection of the Japan-US Security Treaty that obliges America to defend the country.

It is almost absurd to think that the US could be drawn into a shooting war with a nuclear-armed China over a bunch of uninhabited and essentially useless islands that not one in 10,000 Americans have ever heard of. Yet for 60 years Tokyo has lived up to its side of the bargain, providing bases in Japan for American forces; it might be inclined to call in the chips, demanding the US uphold its side.

While most of these prospective war scenarios are fiction or imaginative, there is plenty of real-life fodder to build on, much of it having occurred during the past 12 months. Chinese fisheries protection and coast guard ships now regularly enter Japanese-claimed territorial waters around the Senkaku.

So far these incursions have been made with only quasi-warships and answered by the Japanese Coast Guard and not the regular navy, but Chinese intrusions into Japanese-claimed airspace have been met with fighters from the regular air force.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is regarded in China and elsewhere as being unusually hawkish. This year the parliament passed legislation creating a new National Security Council, patterned after the American version, and a new official secrets act to allay Washington’s concerns of leaking defense information.

Next year it is likely that parliament will adopt a new interpretation of the Pacifistic constitution to permit “collective defense,” previously interpreted as offensive military operations. Other indicators this past year:

  • In January a Chinese frigate’s radar “locked on” a Japanese destroyer. This is usually perceived as an indicator that the frigate will fire its weapons. The Japanese vessel took evasive action.

  • The Japanese navy launched its largest warship, the Izumo, what the Japanese term a “helicopter destroyer,” and what the rest of the world might call a light aircraft carrier.

  • About a 1,000 Japanese infantry took part in the Dawn Blitz exercise with U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton training to defend or if necessary retake one or more of the string of islands south of Okinawa.

  • As part of an exercise, Japan recently placed anti-ship missiles on Miyako island, which stands beside the Miyako Channel, a strategic waterway wide and deep enough to permit warships to pass through and is sometimes used by the Chinese Navy to exercise in the broader Pacific.

  • The Ministry of Defense said it is studying shooting down any Chinese drones that encroach on Japanese sir space after one reportedly hovered near the disputed islands. It reasons that, unlike regular aircraft, unmanned drones cannot respond to warning shots.

It is not just a Sino-Japanese War that captures the imagination of the arm-chair warriors. Earlier in the year, when North Korea exploded its third atomic bomb and threatened to rain intercontinental missiles on the United States, it spawned a number of war scenarios involving Japan and North Korea (and others)

Tensions with Pyongyang quieted down over most of the rest of the year, although the recent and mysterious execution of supreme leader Kim Jung-un’s uncle and some reports that it might be readying a fourth nuclear weapons test, might breathe new life into the Korean war story sub-genre.