The Japanese government issued its annual Defence White Paper on 2 August. Its contents have become the issue of debate in China, who reacted strongly on its contents. The main highlight of the Defence White Paper is that Japan has called North Korea’s nuclear and missile development a “grave and imminent threat” to the region and international security. The report also criticised China’s increasingly assertive military action in the Asia-Pacific region and its defiance to the ruling on 12 July by the international tribunal on the South China Sea. The significance of the observation in the white paper cannot be missed as the Japanese government under Abe Shinzo is pushing for Japan to take on greater military roles abroad.
The key points in the 484-page report focus mainly on three points: North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program, China’s assertive posture and maritime claims as well as air activity, and China’s interference in the East China Sea. First, the report expressed alarm that Pyongyang is suspected to have achieved the capability to miniaturise atomic weapons for warheads, as well as acquired a missile capable of reaching as far as 10,000 km (6,200 miles), and therefore has “become a grave and imminent threat not only to Japan but also to the security in the region and the international society”.
The second key point is on China’s expanding and assertive maritime and air activity and lack of transparency in China’s military build-up, which have destabilised the military balance in the region. It further observes that some of China’s moves over conflicting maritime claims are “dangerous actions that could create unanticipated situations ….They raise strong concern about what may happen in the future”. The report also observes that China’s land reclamation and construction in the South China Sea are a provocation and recommends that China accept the international arbitration ruling of 12 July aimed at settling its maritime disputes with the Philippines. The document described China’s actions in the disputed waters as “highhanded” and that Beijing is “making steady efforts to turn the coercive changes to the status quo into a fait accompli”.
The third key point is on the East China Sea, where China has stepped up activity around Japanese-controlled islands that both claim. The report expresses concern that a Chinese warship entered water just outside Japanese-claimed waters in the area, “the first case by Chinese Naval combatant ship to enter that contiguous zone”. This year’s 484-report is longer by 60 pages than defense white paper of 2015. In response to the activity of Chinese warplanes, Japan’s Air-Defense Force (JASDF) had to scramble its fighter jets 873 times, of which 571 involved Chinese aircraft during fiscal year 2015 to intercept Chinese military aircraft approaching or introducing Japanese airspace. This number constitutes an all-time high since the defence ministry started to keep records in fiscal year 2001 and also marked a significant increase from 2014 with 464 sorties. While Japan calls the disputed islands the Senkaku, China calls them as Diaoyu.
The White Paper expresses concern that China is “determined to accomplish its unilateral demands without compromise” and without regard to international norms that could result in “unintentional consequences”. There has been a rapid surge in China’s defence budget, by double-digit numbers, since 1989. The Japanese report observes that China has embarked on a rapid modernisation of its military, seen as the largest in the country’s history and the pace of this has been rapid.
The Abe administration is currently making efforts to reinterpret the country’s pacifist constitution, which now permits the government a more proactive approach towards Japanese security, which means “collective self-defence” and limited military support of allies abroad. After having secured a majority in the recently-held elections to the Upper House, the Abe government is emboldened now to invigorate efforts to amend Article 9 of the Constitution to give the government’s push towards making the country a “normal” state. Though this does not come out clearly in the White Paper, the essence of Japan’s intent is obvious. Abe government’s move is in response to the security environment surrounding Japan that has become increasingly severe and the move to change the legislation is intended to contribute to peace and stability of the regional and international community.
The Chinese media did not view the report so kindly. Condemning the report, the official Xinhua news agency noted in a commentary: “’China threat’ and stirs up tensions in the region with a view to justifying Japan’s new security bills and finally moving closer to Abe administration’s long-held goal of revising the country’s pacifist constitution.” The agency also accused Japan of making “irresponsible remarks” on “China’s normal military growth and maritime activities”. It slammed Japan’s security law that permits Japanese troops to work more closely with allies in conflicts outside its territory. Blaming squarely Japan, it observed: “For a country which is reluctant to face up to its ignominious wartime history squarely, its attempts to beef up military power will pose a serious threat to world peace”. The real purpose of the document, it said, is “to tarnish China’s image”.
China’s People’s Daily was equally scathing. Expressing strong opposition to the White Paper, it called the document “hostile to the Chinese military and deceptive to the international community”. China’s Defence Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said in a statement that the White paper was “full of hackneyed expressions, distorts China’s justified and reasonable defense work, heightening issues in the South China Sea and the East China Sea”. Wu accused Japan of devoting some 30 pages in the 484-page document on China’s “normal and legal maritime activities” in South China Sea and East China Sea, which are “irresponsible”. While asserting the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in East China Sea as “part of China”, Wu accused Japan for hyping the so-called “abnormally close encounter” of Chinese and Japanese military aircraft. He urged Japan to create conditions for improved China-Japan ties through concrete action.
In Japan, the popular Asahi Shimbun in its editorial found fault that the White paper failed to define “the goal or direction of the nation’s defense policy”. The editorial felt that merely listing the threats is not enough; what the report should have, it felt, is that it should have shown direction of the country’s defence policy to the nation and to the world. As the first defense white paper to be published since the enactment of contentious national security legislation in 2015, easing arms exports, the editorial felt that the white paper “should have been more thorough than ever in explaining exactly where Japan’s defense policy is going”.
There are several gaps, it was felt in some quarters. For example, it remained unclear that though Japan’s SDF is beefing up joint military exercises with armed forces of other countries and reinforcing cooperation with some ASEAN nations by providing equipment (for example, Vietnam), the kind of environment that Japan wants to create in the region remains unclear. Given that China is already a major player, the biggest challenge for Japan as also for others is how to integrate China into the global system in a spirit of accommodation and cooperation so that China’s contribution can be useful to the world. Countries tend to be oversensitive to changes happening in their neighbourhood. China is a clear example to this.
Japan can probably be more sensitive to China’s concern and accordingly steer a course whereby its security interest are maintained while at the same time chances of accidental military confrontations can be avoided. Japan also needs to keep in mind the limits of its defence forces to respond to a new situation hindered by the country’s constitutional limitations. At the same time, China should exercise restraint in many of its recent actions.