Analysis: ‘Fear of the U.S.’ prevents direct Chinese military action against Japan

By Jonathan Davis

A new analysis of rising tensions between China and Japan, historic enemies, in the East China Sea makes an interesting observation but one that makes perfect sense.

The analysis notes that China is attempting to essentially absorb the Senkaku Islands, claimed by both countries but currently occupied by Japan.

China is doing this by using “gray zone” tactics — flooding the region around the island with ships and planes, more than the Japan Self Defense Force can reasonably respond to, with the objective of absorbing the islands, which Beijing calls Diayous, “by osmosis.”

Understanding that the JSDF and its various elements present a formidable challenge to the Chinese military, there are nonetheless inherent problems and shortfalls within it that make Japan much more reliant on the United States than it may seem:

Beijing’s claims remain, and the JSDF continues fortifying islands in the Ryukus with weaponry intended to “close the gaps.” However, recent reports that Japan will permit a US airbase to rise on Mageshima Island is a red herring – for now. A base won’t be ready for a decade, at least.

The JSDF is formidable – and Beijing knows it. Japan’s navy, particularly its submarines and anti-submarine capabilities, are excellent. Tokyo invests in expensive hardware, including F35 fighters, Aegis Ashore anti-missile systems and F35 aircraft carriers.

Still, the JSDF lacks coherent planning, has limited tri-service capability and can’t attract enough recruits. This leaves Japan dependent on the US to backstop its defense.

Ultimately, it is fear of the Americans that limits Chinese aggression. Japanese vessels and the US Navy work well together and are ready to fight in the East China Sea. Okinawa-based US Marines are also increasing cooperation with Japanese counterparts.

And while the U.S. and Japan do disagree at times, the alliance is strong and likely to remain so. In the meantime, Tokyo will continue enhancing its own self-defense while advancing its own territorial interests:

The year 2020 will see more JSDF regional engagement, with ship visits and exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Beyond PR, this is evidence that Tokyo will challenge China’s dominance of the region.

It should be noted, however, that China believes its regional territorial interests are not only superior to that of Japan, but more necessary. What will Beijing do to enforce its will on a smaller, though still powerful, Japanese rival?

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