Tag Archives: Japan

The Republic of Korea Navy: Blue-Water Bound?

By Paul Pryce

Defence Reform Plan 2020 (DRP2020), originally set out in 2005 by the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Ministry of Defence, presents an ambitious vision for future military capabilities. For the Army, this will mean personnel reductions – specifically a total drop in troop strength from 690,000 in 2005 to 500,000 by the end of 2020 – in an effort to promote a more modern, professional force. For the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), meanwhile, this has meant a shift in the focus of procurement projects so as to attain the status and prestige of a blue-water navy’. In other words, the ROKN will seek expeditionary capabilities, operating across the deep waters of the open oceans, rather than concentrating on its traditional role of securing South Korean littorals against intrusion by the military forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or foreign fishing vessels.

But is such a shift from a green-water navy to blue-water possible? Furthermore, is it desirable, given the ROK’s strategic situation? To understand the evolution of this still relatively young navy, it is worthwhile consulting a resource compiled by another regional partner. Particularly valuable insights can be found in a paper produced for the US Naval War College in 2010, entitled “The Emerging Republic of Korea Navy: A Japanese Perspective,” by (retired) Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, who formerly served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force and interacted considerably with his ROKN counterparts from 1997 onward. VADM Koda briefly charts Korean naval history, starting from actions of Yi Sun-shin at the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597 that thwarted a Japanese invasion, but his accounts of force modernization and expansion efforts by the ROKN since the 1990’s are the most detailed sections of the paper and will be of most interest for readers wanting to know what role the ROKN might play in the increasingly complex security order of the 21st century Asia-Pacific.

VADM Koda highlights two concerning capability gaps faced by the present-day ROKN: anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine countermeasures (MCM). On the first point, although the ROKN maintains a robust force of fast patrol craft to counter clandestine intrusions by North Korea, “the ASW posture of the ROKN still remains questionable today, in relation to the perceived threat of North Korean submarines and the geopolitical nature of the country.” Despite evidence suggesting that the Pohang-class corvette ROKS Cheonan was sunk in March 2010 by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, there have been no compelling efforts by the ROKN to shore up its ASW capabilities. Perhaps the only saving grace for ROKN ASW has been, according to VADM Koda, the acquisition of three ASW-capable Gwanggaeto the Great-class destroyers in 1998-2000 and a small fleet of Westland Lynx helicopters. Though the ROKN is not without its own submarines – specifically four Sohn Won-yil diesel-electric submarines and nine Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric submarines – these are geared toward anti-surface warfare (ASUW).

The ROKN’s MCM capability has also been diminished by the decommissioning of coastal minesweepers donated by the United States following the Korean War. At the time of VADM Koda’s writing, the ROKN minesweeper fleet consisted of only three Yangyang-class coastal minesweepers and six Swallow-class coastal minehunters, which he deemed “not yet sufficient for the current security and military situation around the peninsula”. However, the ROKN seems to have recognized this vulnerability to the DPRK’s own doctrine of asymmetric warfare; in 2015, the ROKN launched the first vessel of the Nampo-class, a domestically built minelayer, and plans are in place to produce several new minesweepers based on the design of the Yangyang-class in the coming years. Even so, the ROKN could not solely carry out an MCM role in a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula – VADM Koda identifies the Tsushima Strait as vital to the logistics of any multilateral response to North Korean or Chinese aggression against the South. Unfortunately, no formal agreement currently exists between the Japanese and ROK authorities about conducting combined military operations, which would be crucial to ensuring a clear division of labour on MCM, with the ROKN securing the western end of the Tsushima Strait and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) locking down the eastern channel. This stems from several ongoing political disputes between Japan and the ROK, including the status of Tsushima Island (known as Daemado Island in the ROK). The dispute over the island has persisted since 1948 and shows little sign of reaching a final resolution.

Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006. U.S. Navy photo.
Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006.

The ROKN has demonstrably obtained blue-water capabilities. As the paper notes, ROK President Lee Myung-Bak approved the establishment in 2009 of the Cheonghae Anti-Piracy Unit and its deployment to the Gulf of Aden in support of Combined Task Force 151. A few months later, the ROK joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. New, domestically built surface combatants, such as the Sejong the Great-class destroyers and Incheon-class frigates, possess impressive capabilities and the capacity to project South Korean power beyond the country’s coastal waters. The ROKN has also succeeded in expanding its amphibious capabilities, particularly through the commissioning of its first Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship in 2007 and the replacement in 2014 of aging US-transferred landing ships with the new Cheon Wang Bong-class. VADM Koda interprets this interest in amphibious capabilities as a reaction to the “bitter experience” obtained when the ROKN “found itself unable to participate sufficiently in the multinational relief operations on northern Sumatra, in Indonesia, after the earthquake and tsunami in December 2004”.

In short, while the paper cites ample evidence to believe the ROKN is on course to become a blue-water navy (and perhaps already has), the country’s policymakers and defence planners should pay more thought toward the objectives they wish their maritime forces to fulfill. Boasting the blue-water label and participating actively in humanitarian operations abroad may benefit national prestige, but North Korea remains a paramount security threat. It is clear that the ROKAF assesses its own capabilities as so vastly superior to their DPRK opponents that another attempted invasion of the South would be impossible, and this can be seen in the ROKN’s focus on the quality of landing craft over quantity. But the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan demonstrates that the ROKN ignores ASW and MCM capabilities at the peril of its brave sailors.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.

South China Sea arbitration: Beijing puts forward her own views: The Finale

By Alex Calvo

This is the final installment in a four-part series devoted to China’s 7 December 2014 document, putting forward her views on the Philippines’ international arbitration case on the South China Sea. Although Beijing is refusing to take part in the proceedings, as confirmed following the Court’s 29 October 2015 ruling on jurisdiction, by issuing this document, and communicating in other ways with the Court, the PRC has failed to completely stay aloof from the case. It is thus interesting to analyze China’s narrative as laid down in that document. Read Part OnePart Two, Part Three

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The South China Sea and the Arctic: contradictions in China’s posture? Beijing’s insistence on excluding non-littoral estates from the dispute furthermore clashes with Chinese policy in the Arctic, where the country seeks a voice, arguing that despite just being a (self-labeled) “quasi-Arctic state” it has a right to at the very least make its voice heard given that the region has an impact on its interests. Countries like India, Japan, and the United States, may well put forward similar views concerning the South China Sea, considering themselves to be “quasi-littoral” states given among others their dependence on Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) going through it.

Incentives to delay negotiations. A number of contradictory arguments may be put forward concerning this. Those wishing to blame China may accuse Beijing of seeking to change facts on the ground first (by, for example, occupation of some features and the artificial expansion of others), before engaging in meaningful negotiations. They may also argue Beijing is waiting for the balance of naval power in the region to shift further in her favor, or for developments elsewhere in the world to weaken the resolve of non-regional actors to intervene. On the other hand, those seeking to blame the Philippines may put forward similar accusations, arguing that Manila wishes to rearm (with US and Japanese assistance) first before engaging in serious negotiations with China. These voices may also put forward the view that Manila first wishes to take the moral high ground (among other means by the international arbitration bid), secure stronger support by the United States, or draw in other interested parties like Japan. We can thus see how both sides have potential reasons not to seek a speedy start of bilateral negotiations.

China defends cooperation prior to delimitation, but it is Taiwan and Japan which have implemented the principle. Section IV is perhaps not so original, basically reiterating arguments already expounded in Section III. It still contains some paragraphs worthy of comment, though. In Paragraph 61 the text refers to the “Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in Certain Areas in the South China Sea” between China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Philippine National Oil Company, expanded in 2005 to “a tripartite agreement, with the participation of Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation.” The text praises it as “a good example of the constructive efforts made by the States concerned to enhance cooperation and create conditions for a negotiated settlement of the disputes in the South China Sea,” stressing that the “maritime area covered by that agreement is within that covered in the present arbitration initiated by the Philippines.” Few would disagree that agreements like this do indeed offer an interesting path, allowing states party to a dispute to build trust while concentrating on the joint development and management of natural resources, leaving for later tricky questions of sovereignty. When we move from the realm of theory to that of practice, however, we find that such efforts involving China have not been successful. In the South China Sea, possible cooperation seems to have given way to violent competition, with oil rigs becoming “weapons” rather than symbols of cooperation. In the East China Sea, where a similar agreement was concluded with Japan, it later unraveled and has not been implemented. It is Taiwan, not China, that has actively pushed for joint management that could proceed while leaving sovereignty for later. This has resulted not only in President Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, but in a fisheries agreement with Japan along these lines. Whatever the reasons, no similar agreement has been concluded and effectively implemented by the PRC.

 8,- “Chinese Embassy to the Netherlands. While refusing to take part in the arbitration proceedings, China has regularly communicated with the Court, often through this Embassy.

Chinese Embassy to the Netherlands. While refusing to take part in the arbitration proceedings, China has regularly communicated with the Court, often through this Embassy.

Partial versus comprehensive solutions in territorial conflicts. It is interesting to note the position paper’s critique of Manila’s arbitration bid in Paragraph 68, which argues that “The issues presented by the Philippines for arbitration constitute an integral part of maritime delimitation between China and the Philippines” and that “The Philippines’ approach of splitting its maritime delimitation dispute with China and selecting some of the issues for arbitration, if permitted, will inevitably destroy the integrity and indivisibility of maritime delimitation and contravene the principle that maritime delimitation must be based on international law as referred to in Article 38 of the ICJ Statute and that ‘all relevant factors must be taken into account.’ This will adversely affect the future equitable solution of the dispute of maritime delimitation between China and the Philippines.” While the first sentence is just a reiteration, the second one touches upon a legitimate concern, given that any partial ruling runs the risk not only of being difficult to implement due to its non-comprehensive nature, but also of not being equitable for lack of consideration of certain factors concerning areas or aspects not included in the arbitration proceedings. This could be a reason to reject this approach. On the other hand, it could be said that history shows how countries often reach limited agreements, either because they are unable to successfully reach a comprehensive settlement, or because they prefer to start dealing with those issues where they either expect it to be easier to reach an understanding or which are more pressing. China is no stranger to this posture. The reference to equity though is important since an equitable settlement is often one involving tradeoffs, and such tradeoffs will often only be acceptable when covering a case’s full spectrum of issues.

The long shadow of history in China’s narrative against compulsory arbitration. In Section V the text demands full respect for China’s “right to freely choose the means of dispute settlement”, while defending the position that the “rejection of and non-participation in the present arbitration is solidly grounded in international law.” The stress on “consent” (76), while not amounting to any Chinese singularity, may also reflect the country’s experience with the so-called “unequal treaties.” Also important is the reference (76) to the “package deal” nature of UNCLOS, which is indeed the case, and as the text notes involved “extended and arduous negotiations” with regard to Part XV dealing with dispute settlement. The position paper insists (78) that the resulting “balance” in that Part was “a critical factor” prompting many countries to sign the convention, and again cites the Southern Bluefin Tuna Case, this time to reinforce the notion that compulsory arbitration should be restricted to cases where all parties agreed to it. The problem with this is that if all parties agree to arbitration, then there is no need for the procedure to be compulsory, and if compulsory proceedings are provided for, it is with a view to at least some cases where one or more countries may indeed oppose them. If “compulsory” arbitration could only move forward with the post-ratification consent of all parties involved, one could argue that there would be no need for UNCLOS to lay down areas where arbitration could be mandatory.

Abuse of right. Another legal principle that the text delves into (84) is that of “abuse of right”, in tandem with the above-mentioned “good faith.” These are general principles of law found, in some form or another, in most legal systems. The text cites Article 300 of UNCLOS, which lays down that “States Parties shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed under this Convention and shall exercise the rights, jurisdiction and freedoms recognized in this Convention in a manner which would not constitute an abuse of right,” adding that Manila has not done so by seeking to bypass Beijing’s refusal to engage in arbitration and existing agreements to settle the dispute by negotiations.

Conclusions. Beijing’s document, despite stressing that it is not a formal reply, systematically rejects all of Manila’s arguments, while summarizing China’s position. While China emphasizes the Philippines’ alleged promise to deal with the issue bilaterally, the text refers to treaties between other countries, mentions ASEAN, and touches upon the sensitive issue of Taiwan, in a reminder of how difficult it is to keep things bilateral in this corner of the world. Reading in between lines we can also see how history casts a long shadow over Beijing’s position, a position which is not always free from contradictions, for example when it defends the delay in opening up negotiations with Manila by stressing the complexities involved due to among others the large number of parties, while at the same time emphasizing her traditional stance that the dispute should be approached bilaterally. At the end of the day, it will be might (in a broad sense of the word, not necessarily limited to naval power, and in particular traditional lethal naval power), rather than right which will determine the fate of the South China Sea, but this does not mean that international law will not play a role, and hence the need to carefully follow developments in the international arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, together with rearmament and greater coordination among maritime democracies.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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Communist China’s Approach to Force: 1962 Lessons for the Senkaku Islands?

By Alex Calvo

Given the continued tensions in the East and South China Seas, and the constant speculation on whether Beijing may choose to escalate, it can be useful to have a look at how the PRC has traditionally resorted to force, and in particular the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

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Professor Brahma Chellaney wrote an interesting summary of Communist China’s approach to war, based on that conflict, which saw the Chinese Army penetrate deeply into India for 32 days, after which “Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire, and the war ended as abruptly as it had begun. Ten days later, the Chinese began withdrawing from the areas they had penetrated on India’s eastern flank, between Bhutan and Burma, but they kept their territorial gains in the West—part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. India had suffered a humiliating rout, and China’s international stature had grown substantially”. The six principles displayed were:

  • Surprise. As already advised by Sun Tzu, who wrote that all warfare was “based on deception”.

  • Concentration, “hitting as fast and as hard as possible”.

  • First Strike.

  • Waiting, and choosing the right moment.

  • Camouflaging offence as defence, engaging in “defensive counterattacks”.

  • Daring. A tendency to gamble and take risks.

When it comes to the Senkaku Islands, a question is whether these principles may be employed, in the form of an airborne or seaborne landing of troops or a mixed force of military personnel and “activists”, bypassing the Coastguard units shielding them and taking advantage of the lack of land forces.

Aerial view of the Senkaku Islands
Aerial view of the Senkaku Islands

Concerning surprise, we can see a clear distinction between 1962 and this scenario in terms of strategic surprise. Beijing is announcing every day that she wants the Senkaku, and not making any effort at all to pretend that she is only ready to resort to non-violent means. No ambiguity here, therefore no strategic surprise is being sought. At the tactical level, on the other hand, there is no surprise either in the constant harassment at the hands of paramilitary assets or “civilian” expeditions, but this could be a cover behind which to prepare a landing by military or other government personnel. It is here that surprise may lie, since Beijing may try to take advantage of the presumption that it is only unarmed activists who try to land, inserting an armed force, maybe by air.

With regard to concentration, the nature of the islands means that this principle would not be applicable in exactly the same sense as it was in 1962. Rather than hitting “as fast and as hard as possible”, as Chellaney explains China did against India, the goal would be still be to do it as swiftly as possible but not as hard as possible, rather the contrary, since the idea would be to avoid a clash with the Japanese Coast Guard or other government agencies. Beijing’s goal would be to force Tokyo to take the always difficult decision in a democracy to fire the first shot.

When it comes to striking first, again we have to note an essential difference. Beijing would still be interested in surprise, as already noted, that is she would try to make the first move (and by definition she would, since the islands are already in Japanese hands) but not to shoot first. This would be a major difference with 1962 or with the 1979 “lesson” against Vietnam.

The idea that an attack should be launched at the right time, with a view to a favourable worldwide state of affairs, remains as relevant as ever. This is linked to one of Beijing’s imperatives, preventing the US from coming to Japan’s aid. It would also involve other, regional, powers however. China has a need to keep an eye on Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, among others. It must be said, concerning this, that while it is true that Beijing has usually been smart to launch its limited offensives at the right time (this includes the seizure of the Paracel Islands, occupation of Johnson Reef, and capture of Mischief Reef), when it comes to Japan she miscalculated in 2010. Beijing imposed an embargo on rare earths exports in reaction to the arrest of a trawler’s skipper, not only failing to secure any objective beyond his release but unleashing a major effort to implement alternative technologies, recycle, seek new suppliers, and even explore seabed deposits. The result is that Japan has significantly cut down her dependence on Chinese rare earths.

Japanese air patrol over the Senkaku Islands
Japanese air patrol over the Senkaku Islands

The tendency to carry out “defensive counterattacks” seems to be a constant in Chinese behaviour, which Chellaney reminds his readers had already been noted by the Pentagon in its 2010 report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” to Congress. This report lists a number of instances where Beijing chose to seize the initiative, while framing her actions in a “response” narrative. In a way this is already been happening in the Senkaku Islands, since after each incident Beijing not only rejects Japanese protests but actually issues her own, saying that they are part of her territory and that therefore it is Japanese units which are trespassing. The text also points out how Chinese doctrine calls for waiting for the enemy to strike first, while defining that first strike in political, not necessarily military, terms. Thus it is fine to be the first to resort to force in reaction to a political offensive. The report quotes from “the authoritative work, Science of Military Strategy,” to explain that “Striking only after the enemy has struck does not mean waiting for the enemy’s strike passively.… It doesn’t mean to give up the ‘advantageous chances’ in campaign or tactical operations, for the ‘first shot’ on the plane of politics must be differentiated from the ‘first shot’ on that of tactics… if any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to ‘fire the first shot’ on the plane of tactics.'”

Would this doctrine be compatible with a sneak landing on the Senkaku Islands? It could fit with it if we expanded it to comprise three, as opposed to two planes. The first one would still be the political, with Beijing claiming (as she does) that the islands are hers and that therefore the Japanese are invaders, a position made much easier to sustain by Tokyo’s reluctance to develop the islands, thus contradicting her claims that not only do they belong to the country but that there is no territorial dispute. The second one, where Beijing would be taking the initiative, would be the “tactical-cold” one, that is the employment of force (in the sense of deploying military or paramilitary personnel in violation of Japan’s borders but without inflicting casualties). Finally, the third would be the “tactical-hot,” that is the actual employment of weapons with live fire, where China would rather have Japan be the first to shoot, in the knowledge that it is difficult for democracies to take such decisions and thus in the hope that Tokyo would refrain from doing it or that, if she did, this could be used to Beijing’s advantage on the propaganda and diplomacy fronts.

Finally, with regard to China’s tendency to gamble and take risks, Chellaney notes that this could be furthered by her “second-strike nuclear capability and unprecedented economic and conventional military strength.” In addition to these two powerful factors, we could perhaps mention two additional ones, whose impact is less clear cut but which may nevertheless have some influence: a possible economic crisis and popular demand for the seizing of the Islands. Concerning a crisis, a growing number of voices are alerting about the possibility that the country’s uninterrupted economic growth may sooner or later be brought to a halt. Whether that would prompt a more cautious foreign policy or on the contrary whet Beijing’s appetite for adventures is open to debate. With regard to her domestic public opinion, Beijing is playing a dangerous game by pushing so hard for the Senkaku Islands and thus risking becoming a prisoner of her own narrative. This brings to mind Hugh Bicheno’s comment, in his unofficial history of the Falklands War, that territorial conflicts may be useful to “distract the masses,” but that this “creates an issue others will exploit to question the Nationalist credentials of whoever is refraining from recovering the lost lands.”

We can thus conclude that Communist China’s traditional approach to force, as exemplified by the 1962 War, means a clear danger that Beijing will try to seize the Senkaku Islands by inserting forces and daring Tokyo to be the first to open fire.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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A Bill Too Far? Japan’s Security Legislation and East Asian Security Dynamics

By Justin Chock

Recently, Japan’s parliament approved a set of historic bills: Japan is no longer limited to only defending its own military hardware, and is now able to use its Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to assist its allies whether through military action or logistical support. The original restriction stems from Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” These bills now reinterpret that passage.

The first bill, as explained by the Japan Times, amends ten laws, and includes lifting the previous restrictions on the JSDF’s collective self-defense capability (the ability to defend an ally under attack rather than one’s own units). Collective self-defense will be limited to three conditions however: Japan, or a close ally, must be attacked with a result threatening Japan’s survival and posing a clear danger to people; force must be the only appropriate means available to repel the attack; and the force is the necessary minimum to negate the aforementioned threat.

The second bill is a permanent law that allows Japan to deploy the JSDF overseas to support UN-authorized military operations by providing logistic support (which Japan previously conducted with the US).

But now that the long-anticipated bills are through, how does this change the strategic calculus in East Asia? Will the maritime territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or the South China Sea ignite over a stronger, more capable Japan?

I argue that while the bills strengthen Japan’s alliances, especially the US-Japan Alliance, this change will not lead to conflict as the bill’s opponents suggest.

From Renouncing War to Proactive Peace

A brief look at the history of Japan’s pacifist constitution is in order for understanding these recent developments. During the US occupation of Japan following World War II, America held two complimentary worries in East Asia: a remilitarized Japan and the onset of the cold war, including a stronger Soviet Union and the increasingly popular Japanese Socialist Party. The solution to both concerns was to maintain an American foothold in Japan as was the same in Germany.

But the US presence was in many ways, like the European case, invited; both General MacArthur and the newly appointed Prime Minister, Kujiro Shidehara, agreed that the introduction of the Article 9 peace clause to Japan’s new constitution would be to the benefit of all (although the originator of the idea is still under dispute). Japanese foreign policy soon adapted to Article 9, as seen by Japan’s newly elected government under Prime Minster Shigeru Yoshida. His “Yoshida Doctrine” relied on the US for security while Japan focused on its economy, and subsequent administrations did not stray far from this baseline (for example, the “Fukuda Doctrine” reiterated Japan’s peaceful orientation while adding a focus on development assistance).

But the most recent framework for Japan’s foreign policy, the “Abe Doctrine,” took a dramatic shift. Under Prime Minster Abe, Japan would no longer be held back by concerns over remilitarization, and would deepen engagement with the US while globally emphasizing “value-oriented” diplomacy. Japan as a “Proactive Contributor to Peace” expanded its defense organizations in various ways during the previous few years through the second-ever update of the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines (since its last version in 1997), the creation of a National Security Council modeling the American version, the update of the Japan National Defense Program Guidelines, and the recent expansion of Japan’s Defense Equipment and Technology Transfer program, among many other initiatives.

But the projects named above, as expansive for Japan’s defense policy as they were, all came in 2013. Even the 2015 bills were simply a formality to an already accepted change in interpretation by the Japanese cabinet in July 2014, and as noted earlier, there are many restrictions with the bills that keep the JSDF within its typical roles. Thus Japan’s security apparatus was already significantly transformed before any voting took place in the parliament, and the bills are not in and of themselves groundbreaking when seen in the backdrop of all of the other recent changes.

The Chinese Dragon’s Puff?

Supporters in Japan often argue that the bills are necessary in light of China’s growth as an Asian power, to include its military modernization and increasingly assertive foreign policy. So as a response, will China view the Japanese bills as the beginning of a security dilemma with its neighbor and force an East Asian arms race?

The answer is “not likely.” China’s response was actually quite muted. The Chinese government’s solemn but simple “urge” seems beneath its regional power standing, especially when directed to a country that some don’t even rank in the Top 5 militaries in Asia, and even more so when the US comparatively receives “strong opposition” for simply publishing a routine, annual report on China’s Military and Security developments.

But China’s restrained statement supports the idea that, despite anti-Japanese nationalistic protests and extravagant military parades commemorating WWII (read: “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression”), China’s focus isn’t Japan. If anything, the US and its Southeast Asian partners like the Philippines are China’s true focus with artificial island building in the South China Sea and ships sailing within 12 nautical miles of the US coast in Alaska.

So if China isn’t overly concerned with these bills nor with Japan itself, what do they, if anything, mean for Asia-Pacific security?

Shifting Security Tides?

First, the bills seem to make few changes to the JSDF’s defensive orientation. As noted earlier, the reinterpretation has already been in effect for a year, and although much has happened since July 2014, the JSDF’s operations have remained fairly routine. With the bills, the options for military action increase, but the probability of their implementation remains quite low and only toward the higher-end of the spectrum of conflict. Fears of a remilitarized Japan that stem from the post-WWII era seem similarly unlikely at this point, and a Sino-Japanese arms race seems similarly unlikely given China’s minimal response.

Second however, Japan’s international involvement will become increasingly global in nature in the “proactive” way that Abe hopes. The legal opening to participate in UN operations will allow Japan to send troops to a wider expanse of the globe as a part of these peacekeeping missions. Similarly, seeing the bills as strength for the US-Japan alliance could lead decision makers to begin the proposed joint patrols in the South China Sea, a move to China’s dismay. Japan playing a larger military role in the Asia-Pacific would, in theory, provide a counterweight to recent increases in Chinese military power (although perhaps the upcoming troop reduction is signaling the end of this growth), but it could just as easily create opportunities for friction that lead to an undesired crisis. The implications of a more proactive Japan are up to the future, but the idea of Japan operating in a wider expanse of the globe is quite certain.

Third, the US-Japan Alliance is receiving a legal and psychological upgrade. In addition to Japan’s new capabilities to include intercepting a missile bound for a US warship, the legislation mitigates America’s historic complaint of Japan not pulling its weight in the alliance. In addition, working alongside JSDF forces during UN operations or increased bilateral training supporting a stronger US-Japan Alliance will have a psychological effect on these countries. Trust is already increasing, as 2015 Pew polls show, “two-thirds of Americans trust Japan a great deal or a fair amount and three-quarters of Japanese say they trust the United States.” This trust will only increase as the two forces work even closer together.

Lastly, the political process for reinterpretation is somewhat worrying from a Japanese domestic legal order standpoint. The current bills still came at a substantial political cost; PM Abe’s approval rating now stands at 40 percent, with his disapproval rating at 47 percent. The bill’s disapproval rating was 54 percent (although the cause was linked to a perceived lack of explanation from the government) with only 31 percent approving, and protests outside the building further demonstrated the depth of opposition. The resulting physical “scuffle” within the parliament itself during the signing was also rare for Japanese politics. Despite all of the pushback, the bills still passed, once again demonstrating how Japan is historically adept at reinterpreting rather than amending its constitution. Technically speaking however, the constitution’s Article 96 outlines the amendment process, and requires both a two-thirds vote in the parliament and a majority vote by the public, with no such amendment ever occurring in the constitution’s history. While these current bills maintain the East Asian balance of power, future legislation may go too far; the potential still exists for a future government to reinterpret the constitution through this same process in a way that inadvertently starts a security dilemma.

Admittedly though, reinterpretations aren’t inherently bad. Reading a strict, literal interpretation of Article 9’s stipulation that “land, sea, and air forces… will never be maintained” would have rendered the JSDF unconstitutional a long time ago. Yet the reinterpretation (or rather the “self-defense” title) leading to their creation turned out to be the right decision as the JSDF continues to prove itself in numerous ways to be an incredibly beneficial force (the discussion of the JSDF itself to be saved for another day). Thus on the point of reinterpretations, the responsibility will be up to the Japanese public and government to continue striking just the right balance of force to maintain security for all.

Only time will tell whether the bills will make Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” or create regional friction. But despite the domestic uproar in Japan over the bills’ passage, the Asia-Pacific relations as a whole looks set to proceed on its prior course.

Justin Chock is currently an MPhil in International Relations student at Oxford University. The views expressed in this article are his own.