The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.


1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

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The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.

Japanese (self-) defense forces in Djibouti

It is well known that a number of different units and vessels from several nations are deployed to the area surrounding Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Of the “major players”, one of the less well known is Japan, which has set up a continuing presence under the “Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti”.

JS Samidare (DD-106) Wikimedia Commons/USN

The unit made it to the news earlier this year when they played an important part in the interception of a dhow used by Somali pirates. Although the interception and boarding of the dhow was carried out by the Operation Atalanta flagship FS Siroco (L 9012), the dhow was, according to the official homepage of the EU NAVFOR, initially located by  a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft and a helicopter from the Japanese vessel JS Samidare (DD-106), which operates in associated support to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF/CTF 151).

The Japanese maritime patrol aircraft mentioned was one of the sizeable fleet of P-3C Orion’s operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s air arm, while the helicopter was a SH-60 Seahawk (of the J- or K-version). In keeping with Japanese customs, both are manufactured locally, by Kawasaki and Mitsubishi respectively. As mentioned, the Seahawk’s operate from the Japanese Murasame-class destroyer JS Samidare (eng. ‘Spring rain’). The rather modern outfit of the Japanese units in the area is somewhat in contrast to the French, who apparently sent an aging Alouette III-helicopter to the scene.

The intercepted dhow with the French boarding team and an Aéronavale Alouette III hovering nearby. © eunavfor.eu

The job apparently went well, and the NAVFOR has published some nice pictures of the boarding on their homepage. More interesting than the raid itself, however, is the presence of Japanese fixed-wing assets in the area.

As an effect of WWII, Japan has an anti-militaristic constitution, with the famous article 9 stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained“. Still, the use of “Self-defense forces” as opposed to simply “Defense forces” in the name does not hide the fact that Japan has a well-equipped defense force. A more concrete effect has been the reluctance to participate in operations abroad, with the first Japanese peace-keeping deployment taking place only back in 1992, when a non-combatant force was sent to Cambodia as part of the UNTAC. However, during the last twenty years, a rapid shift in policy has taken place, and in recent years the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone so far as to publicly call for Article 9 to be removed.

This is where the Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti comes in. Even if the word ‘Base’ is avoided (apparently due to article 9) it is very clear that with the creation of the facility back in 2011, for the first time since WWII, Japan has set up a military base in foreign territory. The counter-piracy operation consists of a destroyer, Orion’s operating from the base, and the Japanese Special Boarding Unit (the navy’s elite unit modeled after SBS and the SEAL). In itself, the base is rather unspectacular, both France and the USA have armed forces based in Djibouti, but its symbolic value is high enough for Abe to visit it in August last year.

The thing to remember is that all this is happening against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Far East. The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute that flared up last year is still simmering, and only this week China and Malaysia had a quarrel over a Chinese report on a naval maneuver that was supposedly held in disputed waters at the James Shoal in the South China Sea. Both South Korea and China have been eyeing the rising Japanese self-esteem with worry, while South Korea and Japan share a common mistrust against the growing Chinese ambitions (supported by a rapidly growing modern navy). It remains to be seen whether South Korea and Japan will find each other as allies due to their common fear of China, or if the memory of the Japanese occupation still is too fresh. Rising energy prices and a stalling Japanese economy might easily tip the country into trying to tighten their grip of disputed oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, something that naturally could lead to clashes with China as it aspires to become a ‘true’ superpower.