Written by Ian Bowers.

The creation of a Japanese amphibious unit tasked with recapturing the nation’s outermost islands following an invasion is part of a package of measures designed to counteract potential Chinese aggression over the Senkaku islands. However, the use of military force to decide the dispute is unlikely given the inherent difficulty of modern amphibious operations and current weaknesses in Chinese capabilities. Both sides’ militaries are being used as signaling tools, posturing but not engaging directly.

Since the Japanese Government purchased three out of the five islands in September 2012, the number of incursions into Japanese territory surrounding the islands both in the air and on the sea has increased at a rapid rate.

Chinese fishing vessels escorted by various paramilitary organisations (which have now been largely united into the Chinese Coast Guard) have repeatedly entered and operated in Japanese territorial and contiguous zones forcing clashes with the powerful but over-stretched Japanese Coast Guard. At the same time Chinese maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft, and drones have approached and sometimes violated Japanese airspace, with the JASDF scrambling over 400 times in 2013 in response to potential violations.

The dispute has become symbolic in terms of the China-Japanese relationship. China is asserting itself and challenging Japan’s strategic positon in the region while Japan is attempting to maintain its position and the status-quo. The Chinese strategy is to place significant pressure on Japanese security institutions through constant low-level activity both to assert its own presence in the region and reinforce the legitimacy of its claims.

While these interactions could set into motion an escalatory chain of events resulting in conflict, the likelihood of China using its military to assert its claims through the insertion of troops or full scale invasion remains extremely low.

While it is true that the PLAN has undergone a sustained and substantial naval modernization program, popularly exemplified in the launching of an aircraft carrier, there has been a relative lack of investment in its amphibious capacity. The PLAN has largely replaced its antiquated medium and large landing ships of which there are over 50 in service. But it only possess three modern LPD type ships (Type-71), there are rumors  that further class of vessels called the Type-81 will be constructed. These will probably be through-deck vessels similar to the French Mistral Class, however there is no confirmation of when they will enter service. For the time being the PLAN have to rely on an amphibious fleet with some significant limitations.

Despite this weakness, the potential for offensive Chinese action has been highlighted by both analysts and the popular press. The PLAN has been training, very publicly in some cases, for limited and contested amphibious invasions in recent years with some of the exercises explicitly linked to the Senkaku islands by Western media and even members of the U.S. military. But the likelihood of the PLAN launching an amphibious operation against the islands is extremely low due to the difficulties such an endeavor would entail.

In the modern combat environment against advanced and prepared forces, amphibious operations are extremely difficult. Advanced ISR capabilities are increasingly nullifying the advantage of surprise, while long range stand-off missiles allow for the prosecution and elimination of targets on route to their objective.[1] These manifest difficulties would need to be overcome by Chinese military planners before any operation could be contemplated.

Additionally, the islands themselves are small and provide little in the way of protection or cover. In much publicized remarks, the Commander of the U.S. Marine forces in Japan suggested that any attempt to take the islands could be defeated from the air and sea with little or no need to deploy ground forces. The risks both military and political to the Chinese in undertaking any such operation would be enormous and likely to render any potential advantage in doing so mute.

The Japanese have prioritized responding to Chinese pressure in their 2013 National Security Strategy and in the 2014 Defense Budget. A package of measures are being invested in based on two core themes clearly aimed at the Chinese; securing the seas and airspace around Japan and responding to attacks on remote islands. The procurement of new and modernization of existing ISR capabilities, including surveillance aircraft, submarines and ground based radar form one part of the development plan. The purchase of the F-35A, new naval vessels and more advanced missile technology will in the future provide enhanced deterrence capacity.

In addition to the above measures, the Japanese government is creating an amphibious unit. While still in its nascent stage, it is ultimately intended to be 3000 strong and take advantage of modernized amphibious vessels, new AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles and the MV-22 Osprey which is currently being procured. This force will be tasked with recapturing an occupied island following an invasion or low-level incursion.  The latter scenario is particularly interesting given the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the fear of the Chinese mirroring such an operation on one of the disputed territories. But, the given the barrier of the sea and the difficulty of inserting forces undetected onto a heavily monitored island, the possibility of either scenario is low.

This new amphibious force should be seen as part a signalling strategy by the Japanese government. Internally, having such a capability highlights Japan’s commitment to its own defense and its willingness to take some of the burden off the United States. This puts the alliance on a more equal footing as the U.S. and Japanese governments renegotiate the guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Secondly, the presence of Japanese amphibious forces is an advanced and effective form of deterrent signaling.  Through publicized exercises both with and without the U.S., the Japanese can use this force to communicate resolve to the Chinese and highlight the risks of any potential action.

In many ways then, Japanese amphibious capability has a similar role to that of the Chinese. While the Chinese navy operate and train to pressure the Japanese and signal capability and power; the Japanese are doing likewise albeit in a defensive context. While the possibility of an escalatory chain of events leading to a military clash exists, it is important to bear in mind the low likelihood of the PLAN attempting to settle the dispute by force given the risks involved.

Ian Bowers is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. He specializes in Asian naval modernization and South Korean security policy. Image Credit: CC by America’s Navy/Flickr.


[1]Jennifer M.Lind, Thomas J. Christiensen, “Spirals, Security and Stability in East Asia,” International Security, 24:4 (2000), pp. 190-200.

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