The Japan Factor

**This is provided to Jamestown subscribers to share the private views of a member of The Jamestown Foundation’s Board of Directors. This is not an official Jamestown publication and the views contained herein may not reflect the views of the Foundation.**

Japan—and not the United States—is without question the most important player in the current East Asian confrontation resulting from China’s new territorial claims. What follows is a brief assessment of her interests, resources, and possible actions.

First, Chinese control of the South Sea [nanhai 南海—the name “South China Sea” is western usage] and the key choke point Straits of Malacca would pose a potentially fatal threat to Japan, for Beijing would be able to cut off nearly all imports and exports, which would bring Japan as she is today crashing down.

Second, because Japan has not laid much stress on military affairs since the end of World War II, claiming to believe that Washington would defend her, the tendency is strong to ignore both her potential military and diplomatic clout were she forced either to join actively in defense or defend herself alone.

Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (吉田 茂 1878–1967 prime minister 1948–1954) articulated the idea that Japan should concentrate on economics while leaving war and diplomacy to the United States, in his day a true super-power. This “Yoshida doctrine” is now outdated but not forgotten. To understand the present, however, we would better consult the thoughts of Ugaki Kazushige (宇垣 一成1868–1956) who as a major political figure (general, minister of war, governor of Korea, etc. but never prime minister) recorded in his diaries and elsewhere, his deeply incisive thoughts concerning the status of a Japan effectively isolated and without allies after the Washington Conference (1921–22). A good historical analogy for the present is to say we are now leaving the Yoshida era and (re-) entering that of Ugaki.

Tokyo continues to rely on the United States, although it is already clear from Washington’s reactions to China’s unilaterally asserted territorial claims, construction of artificial islands and airfields, etc. that Washington is not interested in actually stopping, let alone reversing China’s new expansion. In response to clear Chinese aggression, Washington has responded hesitantly, with a series of small scale freedom of navigation exercises which have had no effect on Chinese behavior. Further tests of our alliance commitments to Japan lie ahead.

If as seems likely China next annexes Scarborough Shoal and builds an airfield there, one may expect strong words from Washington but again no serious action to reverse the aggression. Historically speaking, we may be expected to behave as we did in July 1931, when the Japanese army annexed Manchuria. This was early enough that some scholars believe a real threat of force might have led the Japanese to reverse themselves. Secretary of State Henry Stimson (1867–1950) however limited himself to the doctrine that bears his name, which proclaimed “non-recognition.” We considered the Japanese action illegal and condemned it, but the Japanese stayed in Manchuria.

Why might we do the same again? First, our force structure is not adequate to intervene in Asia while at the same time retaining any ability to deal with possible contingencies in connection with Europe and Russia, and the Middle East. Second, our vital interests in the region are not survival but simply freedom of navigation and maintaining our reputation as a reliable ally. Third, China now possesses sufficient nuclear weapons to obliterate much of the United States, so confrontation with Beijing inherently involves a risk that no president is likely to take.

Finally, we have already tried once to sell out Japan, secretly, as all Japanese now know very well. When President Nixon (1913–1994) met China’s Mao Zedong (毛澤東1893–1976) on February 21, 1972, he proposed:

“We must ask ourselves, what is the future of Japan? Is it better—here I know we have disagreements—is it better for Japan to be neutral, totally defenseless, or it is [sic] better for a time for Japan to have some relations with the United States?” [1]

Washington asserted willingness to break all military relations with Japan, leaving her “totally defenseless” in pursuit, it would seem, of a then consensus within his administration that in the future a Chinese-American condominium would supersede all existing arrangements. [2]

Likewise we have repeatedly frustrated efforts by South Korea and Taiwan to develop even minimal nuclear deterrents, such as both Britain and France have created, though both face serious nuclear threats. They have tried nonetheless: current estimates are Taiwan is nine months from a usable weapon, South Korea perhaps eighteen months (Washington Post, April 20).

We limit our action to providing missile defense, a good thing as it raises the threshold for attack, but in no sense adequate as the sole answer to a nuclear threat, as such systems are not difficult to overwhelm.

Why such a policy? Because our policy makers nearly all believed that China was on the way to being transformed by U.S. “engagement” into a “responsible stakeholder” in the region, as Robert Zoellick (1953–) put it in a celebrated speech in 2005 (NCUSCR, September 21, 2005).

Just four years after that expression of optimism, China’s policies unexpectedly turned expansionist in 2009 for reasons no one understands. China has occupied reefs and rocks and islands in the sea, and created 3,200 acres of entirely new land by pumping sand from the ocean floor. Airfields and other military facilities are now located on three of these expanded islets (CNN, May 13). These newly engineered bases greatly increase China’s ability to dominate the South Sea.

At this crucial decision point, however, our government is divided between those who still believe China will become an ally and therefore fear alienating her, and those who see robust action as the best course

So the United States will not play a decisive role. As General Ugaki might have understood, the Japanese and the other countries directly threatened must now consider how to deal with China effectively on their own.

The possible surprise is that Japan and the other threatened countries are quite capable of successfully executing such a policy against Chinese expansion, with or without us. Japan already has a formidable order of battle. Her more than twenty conventionally powered submarines are considered the best and stealthiest in the world (Choson Ibo, July 26, 2010). Her Navy numbers something over 150 ships with roughly 350 aircraft. The Air Self Defense Force has close to four hundred fighters, mostly American nearing obsolescence. When the United States refused to sell our most advanced fighter, the F-22, Japan developed a prototype fighter with similar qualities, the X-2, which recently conducted its first flight tests (Asia Times, January 28). Japan also has an extensive space exploration program, having obvious military uses, and possesses 47 tons of plutonium, enough to build hundreds of thermonuclear weapons (WSJ, July 15, 2015).

The former Japanese Ambassador put it to this author that Japan thus already possessed a “virtual” nuclear deterrent, given that China and all others knew they could quickly build a very large nuclear force.

I disagreed: the Chinese, it seems to me, are strangely unable seriously to believe such inferences. Their views of the future involve wars they win without suffering harm. Although such responsible Chinese as Ambassador Wu Jianmin (吳建民1939–) has published wise warnings—which means others support him—most propaganda is totally unrealistic. My response to the Japanese Ambassador was that given this strange lack of ability to imagine the horrific, it would be only when the first Japanese missile submarine glided off the slipway into the sea that China would really take note. Japan already possesses naval and air military assets as good as their American counterparts if not better and certainly superior to anything China has. (Chinese fighter jets, for example, are powered by low quality Ukrainian or ex-Soviet Russian engines; Japan’s are state of the art).

Right now the Japanese military numbers are lower than of Chinese equivalents, but if Chinese pressure continues, one may expect Japan to build to whatever is required if we refuse to sell it.

Just as importantly, the potential area of contention at present, the South Sea (1,351,000 square miles, half again bigger than the Mediterranean) can even now be dominated by Japan militarily.

Thus, with the forces she possesses today, Japan could close all exits China might use to pass through what is called the “first island chain” to the open sea. The first island chain extends from Kamchatka and Sakhalin through Japan to Taiwan, and then the Philippines to the Straits of Malacca and to the long horizontal barrier of Indonesia: That means closing the Tsugaru Strait (between Hokkaido and Honshu), the Miyako Channel (176 miles of open sea between Japanese Okinawa to the north and Japanese Miyako to the south), the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the Philippines, where their territorial waters overlap), the Straits of Malacca (500 miles from Singapore to the Indian Ocean, which are very narrow particularly in the south: a bit over a mile wide in the Philip Channel in Singapore), and perhaps the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java) and the Lombok Strait (between Bali and Lombok) in Indonesia.

Such an operation, carried out by stealthy submarines, would trap the Chinese Navy near its coast, inside the first island chain. The ancient proverb bimen dagou (閉門打狗) to “lock the door and beat the dog” would then apply, for the remaining Japanese submarines, surface ships, missiles and so forth could then sink much of the Chinese fleet—which would be a defeat for China of historic proportions. It might lead to the collapse of the Chinese government that had initiated the action. [3]

Note that no American forces figure in our speculation. The point that Japan on her own could perhaps defeat China at sea is however only the first of two important facts that deserve much more attention.

The second of these facts is that Japan’s military industries are now permitted to sell to whom Tokyo agrees. In the past our allies in the region, notably Taiwan and South Korea, were restrained by an American choke collar: a monopoly on military sales. We limited the ranges of missiles the South Koreans could develop. With Taiwan, we sell a few often obsolescent systems while denying critical aircraft and submarines. The goal seems to have been to keep China confident that she can take the island militarily, while nevertheless providing enough equipment to appear to be complying with the requirements of the Taiwan Relations Act.

The game changes now that Japan can sell weapons. Strategically Japan and Taiwan are a single unit. Indeed Taiwanese officers already work with Japanese at their radars along the island chain south of Japan. [4] If China captured Taiwan, Japan would become difficult indeed to defend. At their closest only 67 miles separate the two countries. The deep waters off Taiwan’s east coast are ideal for submarines, and coveted by China. Japan will never risk Taiwan becoming weak, whatever the United States may do, for to do so would place Japan in grave peril.

The choke collar is off. Japanese high performance jets (the X-2 could go into serial production by 2018 albeit in an early version) might fill the alarming gaps in the Taiwanese air force; Japanese or Japanese-Taiwanese built submarines could fill that gap in the island’s navy. The United States cannot prevent Japan from making such sales or technology. Remember too that the Japanese do not need to steal advanced technology. They already have it.

U.S. business would likely hustle to get some of the Taiwanese money, for example by selling the F-35 jet. In a world where China was clearly aggressing, European states that have hitherto shunned Taiwan would reconsider. In the 1980s the Dutch allowed the famous RDM shipyard in Rotterdam to close rather than build a third modern submarine for Taiwan. A repeat seems unlikely.

If this scenario is correct, he U.S. will lose control over both the supply of military materials to her friends and allies in Asia, and also over how those countries countered China. Beijing’s propaganda, however, makes clear that it is the United States whose presence in Asia she seeks to eliminate. We are not, however, the key player. That is Japan, capable of quickly becoming, not the state in Asia having the largest number of weapons and soldiers—that will always be China–but rather the one possessing the most effective military, capable of stymying China’s ambitious territorial ambitions

Nevertheless the United States must stay in if at all possible. The stabilizing sea anchor provided by U.S. cooperation in alliance with the threatened countries is of potentially critical importance in halting Chinese expansion, avoiding escalation, and eventually, one devoutly hopes, creating a peaceful concert of states in East and Southeast Asia.

Arthur Waldron is a member of the Jamestown Foundation’s board and Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania


1. Transcript: Mao Zedong Meets Richard Nixon, February 21, 1972,University Southern California,

2. This is the view, by no means shared by all, not only of some Western experts but also by some Chinese—who see such a defeat as possibly destroying Communism and bringing a new regime.

3. Taiwan Relations Act, January 1, 1979, American Institute in Taiwan,

4. Author’s personal information from visits to the islands.

**This is provided to Jamestown subscribers to share the private views of a member of The Jamestown Foundation’s Board of Directors. This is not an official Jamestown publication and the views contained herein may not reflect the views of the Foundation.**