Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Japan, South Korea and A Shifting Maritime Security Paradigm

The Japanese government’s recent decision to modify its self-defense laws dating back to immediately after the Second World War has sent shockwaves throughout East Asia.  Some Japanese and American officials are glad to see Japan taking greater responsibility for their national defense, yet Japan’s military revival has sent nerves wrangling in other parts of the region. The revisions in the Japanese constitution’s Article 9 are likely to cause a stir in East Asia’s delicate maritime security paradigm in particular.

As an island nation, Japan depends a great deal on her navy for security. Japan is currently locked into maritime disputes with three regional military powers: China, Russia, and South Korea. Thus, a large part of Japan’s re-building of its military will likely focus on its naval capabilities, as well as strategic missile forces (which of course can be deployed in naval operations). The Japanese Ministry of Defense has requested an increase in its national defense budget for this year, a marked shift from the downward trend in Japanese defense spending. According to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Japan already had the 7th largest defense budget in the world before the Ministry’s funds request.

Some experts believe, however, that recent modifications to Japan’s laws and other actions taken by the government aren’t as threatening as they seem. Garren Mulloy, an expert on the Japanese military, believes that the idea that Japan is re-militarizing is overblown, and that while the Japanese navy is one of the best in the world, it would not likely be able to sustain combat with a country such as China for more than a few weeks.

Much of the international focus on Japan’s military budget increase and the related changes in Japanese law has been on mounting tensions with China. Nevertheless, while many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have bitter memories of Japanese militarism from the Second World War, perhaps among the most apprehensive about the re-emergence of Japan’s military complex is South Korea. Indeed, historic memory dies hard in this part of the world. The Korean nation has billed itself as a “shrimp among whales,” referring to its vulnerability against its historically more powerful neighbors. Even 200 years after Japan’s invasion of Korea during the Imjin Wars in the late 16th century, the Korean government has taken strategic decisions--based in part on public fears--regarding the perceived threat from Japan, even when no threat seems imminent.

The majority of South Korea’s military is concentrated on its conventional infantry forces, which are primarily prepared to engage in armed combat against a North Korean invasion. Nevertheless, South Korea of late has been putting more resources toward the development of a blue water navy, an initiative that began in 1995, at the behest of Admiral An Pyong-tae. While South Korea’s navy has had a global reach, such as participating in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, it will likely continue to have an eye on Japan’s military, in particular its navy, as it seeks to increase its own naval power. This comes in no small part due to South Korea’s maritime disputes with Japan.

The United States, a staunch ally of both Japan and South Korea, has welcomed a greater Japanese role in its own defense and security. At the same time, the US is faced with a delicate balancing act. The US military presence in both Japan and South Korea serve the purpose of defending against North Korea as well as containing an expansionist China. Japan and South Korea often begrudgingly accept their status as strange bedfellows, brought together by the United States due to their mutual fears of North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China. While a greater amount of burden-sharing on Japan’s part may serve US interests as well as Japanese pride, there is a risk that the fragile security balance in Northeast Asia could become disrupted, and that the stable peace that currently exists between Japan and South Korea could spiral into an unstable peace, or even worse.

Japan remains the home of the US Seventh Fleet, and the US must first and foremost defend its own interests in the region. It’s possible that America may get caught between two rising naval powers, both wed to the United States, and both suspicious of each other. The US has been actively engaging in naval diplomacy in Northeast Asia, sending clear messages to both China and North Korea. Earlier this year, Japan, South Korea and the US participated in a two-day trilateral naval exercise. The exercise was the first involving both Japan and South Korea since the revisions in Japan’s self-defense laws. But nothing is written in stone, and a stable security seascape is not something to take for granted.

Thus, at the moment, it seems that Japan and the Republic of Korea will be on a relatively cooperative footing with regard to maritime security in Northeast Asia. Nevertheless, as Japan’s naval power increases, states vested with security interests in the region must be wary of possibly increased tensions between Japan and South Korea. Indeed, as Professor Robert Kelly states, much of South Korea’s diplomacy with Japan aims to isolate the country. Even if armed naval confrontation between Japan and South Korea does not appear to be likely, the increase of Japanese naval power risks exacerbating tensions in the region’s delicate security balance.

No comments:

Post a Comment