Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Japan's Air Self-Defense Force base on Okinawa shares a runway with the civilian planes on this island about 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo. When the American-made Japanese F-15s scramble, as they often do these days, the civilian traffic awaiting takeoff pulls over to a side taxiway. It must be a pretty decent air show for those with a window seat.
The F-15s scramble in pairs, perhaps a minute apart. Two flights of two roared off as I watched from a balcony at the base HQ, then another pair 20 minutes or so later. Most likely, they were off to intercept traffic inbound for airspace over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, to which China has laid a territorial claim that both Japan and its powerful ally, the United States, categorically reject. Planes from the Chinese mainland have repeatedly been probing to test the Japanese response. Scrambling to meet the provocations has been more or less a daily affair since last year. More Japanese F-15s are redeploying to Naha Air Base to meet the mounting demand.
There is no immediate crisis in the South China Sea, nor is anyone expecting one to arise any time soon. But Japanese wariness befits the situation. The practical implication of China as a rising economic and military power has been Chinese willingness to test its neighbors in the “gray zone” of conflict, as Japanese officials characterize encounters like the ones for which the F-15s have set out.
I was in Tokyo and Okinawa with a small group of Americans as a guest of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Japan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the process of reorienting its national security posture. Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution (drafted by the United States after defeating the imperial military government 70 years ago) renounces war as a sovereign right and forbids maintaining land, sea, and air forces. Yet as the F-15s indicate, Japan has considerable military power at its disposal, including significant naval assets and the quietest diesel submarines anywhere. The Japanese constitution contains no prohibition on defending the homeland. Hence the official “Self-Defense” designation of the branches of the Japanese military.
Last year, the Abe government promulgated a reinterpretation of Article 9 designed to allow Japan to participate in collective self-defense measures—to come to the assistance of an ally under attack, as Japan would hope to be assisted. Some in Japan, including Abe, would like to amend the constitution to reduce the constraints under which the country operates. For now, the political support for such a move is insufficient, so reinterpretation is the order of the day. The postwar Japanese tendency toward pacifism is sufficiently strong, however, that concerns from the left about reemerging Japanese nationalism and militarism receive a wide hearing both in Japan and abroad. And indeed, some politicians on the right encourage it by giving expression to a sanitized version of Japanese militarism from the 1930s through the end of the war.
But there is a much better explanation for the new approach to security policy than resurgent Japanese militarism, and it is reducible to a single word: China. North Korea is inscrutable and unpredictable; no one in the neighborhood has reason for complacency there. China, by contrast, is a known quantity, and what Japanese diplomats and defense officials in and out of uniform see is a neighbor that talks about a “peaceful rise” but would also like to secure a sphere of influence in which other countries readily defer to its wishes—the peace of deference to the strong.
Japanese officials note that every time a power vacuum has occurred in the region, China has actively sought to fill it, from the colonial French bugout in the 1950s, to the fall of Saigon in the 1970s, to the closing of U.S. air and naval bases in the Philippines in the 1990s. No one thinks China is eager for a war with any of its neighbors; its 1979 invasion of Vietnam was the act of a China in very different circumstances from those of rapidly advancing prosperity today. But if there’s a door, China will knock on it, and if there’s no answer, China will try the handle.