Will Japan’s Troubles Be China’s Boon?
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Japan’s triple disaster — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis — threatens to disrupt the region’s strategic balance, analysts say.
“The situation, in the near term, cannot but benefit China’s position — especially when it comes to responding to Chinese activity in the East China Sea,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.
Some analysts said they believe China could take advantage of a distracted and weakened Japanese military.
“Like a master strategist in a global board game, Beijing realizes it strengthens its position not only by augmenting its own resources, but when an opponent suffers a relative decline in theirs as well,” said Bruce Klingner, Asia defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “China would benefit from an even more inwardlyfocused Japan as it struggles to recover from last week’s epic natural disasters.”
Some fear that the crisis might encourage China to be more aggressive. In the past couple of years, Beijing has reasserted territorial claims to the Japanesecontrolled Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyutai by China. Last September, a Chinese fishing vessel in the area rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Japanese officials arrested the Chinese sailors, then released them after Beijing reduced exports of rare earth minerals to Japan.
China’s military has also been intruding into Japanese airspace and maritime waters with submarines, surface ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Sumihiko Kawamura, vice president of the Okazaki Institute in Japan and a retired admiral of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, said Japan cannot ignore China’s continued aggressive behavior in the long term.
“The majority of the Japanese perceive that China is increasing assertiveness and threatening Japan,” so Japan must continue to update its military, he said.
The disaster came at the worst possible time for Japan’s economy, Kawamura said.
As the country’s national debt nears 200 percent of gross domestic product, Japan faces a disaster management and reconstruction bill that could top $200 billion, he said. The country spent $156 billion to recover from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Tokyo will have to decide whether to issue more bonds and rearrange the 2011 national budget to raise needed funds, he said.
“The crisis will likely impact Japan’s economy severely, to a great or lesser extent undermining economy recovery and reducing government revenue and consequently government spending overall, and defense will have to take at least a fair share of the hit,” said Singapore-based Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies – Asia.
Japan’s military budget, which hovers around $47 billion, is second in the region after China’s $91.5 billion budget released earlier this month. South Korea, which faces a tangible threat from North Korea, spends about $27 billion annually.
The Japanese military may be ordered to redirect some of its already underfunded training and maintenance budget to rescue operations, Klingner said.
“Tokyo may be less willing and able to respond to events even on its near horizon and will be more resistant to requests to devote humanitarian or military assets on international missions far from its shores,” he said.
U.S. defense industry sources in Tokyo indicate that the crisis has thrown a monkey wrench into the long-delayed F-X fighter competition. A request for proposals had been expected last week.
The $10 billion program aims to buy 40 to 50 fighter jets to replace aging F-4EJ Phantoms. Expected rivals include Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter’s Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
To make matters worse, the tsunami destroyed Matsushima Air Base, home of Japan’s F-2 fighter training unit, the 21st Squadron. Media reports indicate 18 F-2B twin-seat fighters were damaged by a 23-foot tidal wave. An unknown number of UH-60J Black Hawk helicopters belonging to the air rescue wing were also damaged.
One option is extending F-2 production, slated to end in September.
The tragedy could “push the Ministry of Defense towards an aircraft that can be procured quickly and cheaply,” Klingner said.
A U.S. defense industry source in Tokyo agreed, “I think there are going to be a lot of sacred cows served up for dinner before all this is over ... they need some serious new systems [the F-X], and this Tohoku disaster is going to suck all the oxygen out of the system.” The military will be under pressure to divert funds to develop a capacity for “high-availability disaster recovery-related tasks, possibly leading to reduced combat power and readiness,” Huxley said.
This could also mean a reallocation of funds from the integrated air and missile defense program to operational budgets.
The disaster could change the public’s perception of Japan’s military, which has suffered from suspicion since the end of World War II.
“After all, it is the Self-Defense Forces on the front lines of rescue and relief efforts, and the argument has long been made that Japan cannot play a larger regional security role as long as the public equates the military with war,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Any attempt by China to “exploit this tragedy would really incite the nation and perhaps even stiffen the Japanese spine,” he said.
However, if the military bungles disaster relief operations, the situation could deepen cynicism about the Self-Defense Forces.
“How it responds now in the public eye will be important,” said Peter Woolley, author of the book, “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.” “Heroes and goats emerge from every calamity. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces has the opportunity to improve its stature significantly — or not.”