11 September 2010

Ryukyu Chain in China’s Island Strategy

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Ryukyu Chain in China’s Island Strategy,” Jamestown China Brief, Vol. 10, No. 18 (10 September 2010).

In late August the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) intend to stage their first-ever island defense exercises in December. The maneuvers will be held in concert with U.S. Navy forces to refine plans for recapturing the lightly protected Ryukyu Islands from a hostile—presumably Chinese—invading force (Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20). To date, the response from China has been rather muted considering the stakes it faces (Asia Times, August 31). As the first installment in this series on Japanese maritime strategy demonstrated, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been making efforts to break out of the first island chain and operate freely in the Western Pacific, either to threaten the east coast of Taiwan or for some other purpose. Occupying one or more of the Ryukyus offers one way for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to do so. Once ensconced within the island chain, PLA forces could drive off allied navies, keeping Tokyo and Washington from slamming the nautical gateway shut.

After decades of declining to dispute Chinese access to the Pacific, Tokyo has started taking the prospect of Sino-Japanese maritime competition more seriously, and it grasps the geographic dimension of any such contest. Indeed, the editors of Asahi Shimbun recently fretted that Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Advisory Council on Security and Defense Capabilities had issued a report that espoused modifying the government’s National Defense Program Guidelines. The Guidelines shape JSDF strategy and forces and thus constitute an indicator of how the government views the security setting. The editors interpreted the Advisory Council report as embracing “the logic of force.” For them it marks a dangerous step back from Japan’s pacifist traditions (Asahi Shimbun, August 28).

That there is an antagonistic element to Sino-Japanese relations, then, is far from obvious to many Japanese, who quarrel among themselves over the nature of China’s rise and its security implications for their nation. Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, for example, recently told the Beijing-Tokyo Forum, “There is no need for us to keep stressing that China is a threat. The China-threat theory in Japan has turgidly stirred unease among the people” (Xinhua News Agency, August 31). Accordingly, interactions between the two Asian heavyweights defy easy prognosis. Trade and commerce are knitting their economies together even as strategic ambivalence buffets bilateral ties. Conflicting impulses and trends have given rise to what the Japanese-mainstream dubs a “politically cold and economically hot” relationship. While officialdom refrains from portraying China’s ascent as a challenge to the U.S.-led Asian order, the planned Ryukyu exercises indicate that Tokyo has quietly taken to hedging its bets. …