“I’ve worked to rebalance American foreign policy to ensure that we’re playing a larger and lasting role in the Asia Pacific.” With those words, U.S. President Barack Obama — in a Joint Press Conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — said in no uncertain terms that America would remain a Pacific power in the 21st century. And as the U.S.-Japan Joint Vision Statement says, “A revitalized alliance with Japan is making the U.S. position in Asia more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable.” In simplistic terms, that is what “Pivot to Asia” is all about. Or should I say, “Pivot to Japan”?
Obama must have realized that for his “Pivot to Asia” to work, he has to bring in Japan – whose naval power is second only to the U.S. in the region — as a strategic partner in containing a rising China whose aggressive military expansion in the East and South China Seas is causing tension among her neighbors. Indeed, China’s reclamation projects in at least six islands in the Spratly archipelago would give her control over the South China Sea. Just imagine China claiming a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Spratlys and an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. When that happens, it would curtail maritime freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And since Japan is heavily dependent on imported oil from the Middle East — which passes through the South China Sea — it is therefore in her best interest to partner with the U.S. in keeping the trade lanes in the South China Sea open.
New defense guidelines
The new defense guidelines – the first revision since 1997 — would allow Japan to participate in “global military cooperation” including defense against ballistic missiles, maritime security, and cyber and space attacks. These only happened after Japan passed a cabinet resolution last year reinterpreting her post-World War II pacifist constitution.
The resolution allows her to exercise the right to “collective self-defense,” which means that she could come to the aid of U.S. forces — or any other country’s forces for that matter — under attack even if there was no armed attack against Japan. This is a major change in the alliance because under her pacifist constitution Japan couldn’t use force to protect Americans in danger. Now, she can shoot down ballistic missiles heading toward the U.S.
But what seems to be the ultimate goal of the new guidelines is to strengthen the defenses along the First Island Chain to prevent China — who has been building her blue water navy — from breaking out of the First Island Chain into the deep blue waters of the Western Pacific all the way to the Second Island Chain.
In 1986, China shifted her naval strategy from “Coastal Defense” to “Offshore Defense.” Admiral Liu Huaqing, often referred to as the “father of the modern Chinese navy,” developed that strategy. He served as Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from 1982 to 1987.
However, Liu was aware at that time that the PLAN was limited to “Coastal Defense” only. To achieve an effective “Offshore Defense” strategy, which was to defend China’s maritime interests within China’s claimed maritime territories, Liu identified four requirements to be fulfilled, to wit: (1) The ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time; (2) The ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes; (3) The ability to fight outside of China’s claimed maritime areas; and (4) The ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent. And to fulfill these requirements, the PLAN developed the following timetable:
Phase 1: To be achieved by 2000, when China has exerted control over her maritime territory within the First Island Chain; i.e., Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea.
Phase 2: To be achieved by 2020, when China has extended control over the Second Island Chain.
Phase 3: To be achieved by 2050, when China has evolved into a true global navy.
Out of the four requirements, only requirements 1 and 2 have been partially fulfilled. To fulfill requirement 3, China needs to break out into the Second Island Chain and defend her maritime territories within the First Island Chain. And requirement 4 is still a work in progress. In essence, Phase 1 is now 15 years behind schedule. All in all, China might not be able to achieve her expansion goals until 2075… or beyond.
However, China has been working doubly hard to finish the reclamation projects in the South China Sea. Once they’re completed — and militarized – she could then exert her dominance over the waters west of the First Island Chain, which runs from Northeastern China through Japan, the Ryukyu archipelago, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
With China’s reclamation projects expected to be completed by 2016, the battle lines for control of the First Island Chain are now being drawn. China’s objective is to break through the First Island Chain at either one of two choke points along the chain: the Miyako Strait between Taiwan and the Ryukyu islands or the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and Northern Philippines.
Defending the straits
Two years ago, Japan deployed several units of surface-to-ship missiles on Miyako Island, which could control navigation through the strategic Miyako Strait. Any attempt by China to break through the Miyako Strait would be difficult and could inflict heavy casualty to Chinese forces.
Last year, Japan began construction of a radar station on Yonaguni Island, her westernmost territory, which is only 93 miles from the disputed Senkaku Islands and less than 100 miles off the coast of Taiwan. The radar station would provide Japan with better defense and surveillance capabilities over the Senkakus, which China claims.
The Luzon Strait is 160 miles wide containing three island groups belonging to the Philippines. The Batanes Islands are the northernmost islands of the Philippines. They provide a natural vantage point from which to monitor maritime traffic in the Bashi Channel that separates Taiwan from the Philippines.
Recently, in conformance with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in April 2014, the U.S. reportedly asked the Philippines for access to military bases in eight locations – four in Luzon, two in Cebu, and two in Palawan. The four sites in Luzon include the former U.S. bases in Subic and Clark. The other two are the Laoag Airport and Batanes Island. Surmise it to say, Laoag and Batanes would provide the U.S. with the capability to prevent China from breaking through the Bashi Channel or any of the other two channels, Babuyan and Balintang, in the Luzon Strait.
But due to the pending petition before the Philippine Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of EDCA, the U.S. has to wait until the High Court issues a ruling. If the High Court rejects EDCA, just like when the Philippine Senate rejected the retention of the American bases in 1992, then the Philippines will be taken out of the loop in the U.S.’s rebalancing of her forces in Asia Pacific.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has to make do with “Pivot to Japan.” It’s anticipated that with the signing of the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, Japanese warships would soon be joining American warships in patrolling the East and South China Seas. Uncle Sam couldn’t have gotten a better deal than that.