On the Road to War—The Deterrence Gap


                                                             by Bill Lee

Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack…The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!

— Dr. Strangeglove, 1964


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally moved very near to realizing his goal of getting approval for the exercise of the right of collective self-defense (CSD); meanwhile, China is continuing its relentless buildup of its armed forces, particularly with regard to aircraft carriers and aircraft. With North Korea thrown into the mix and heightened disputes pitting China against Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, the course seems set for a sharp escalation of the arms race in East Asia. No one of course knows where this will precisely lead, but at least a Cold War-like stand-off between the United States, Japan, Australia, and other allies in the Asia-Pacific region and China and a Ukraine-minded Russia is clearly looming, with increasingly likely possibilities that armed clashes could occur at any time. The adherents of CSD in Japan claim that CSD will serve to “deter” China; at the same time, China also invokes the concept of deterrence to justify its arms buildup. But is “deterrence” still a valid concept, one that can be relied upon to preserve peace? This paper will examine the slide toward CSD in Japan, the current situation of China’s defense deterrence, and the prospects for China’s aircraft carriers providing the deterrence to prevent war in the region.


Dreams into Nightmares


As I pointed out in a previous paper (“Becoming Normal – Japan’s Rising Militarism,” October 27, 2013), the Abe Cabinet carefully paved the way toward approval of collective self-defense by creating a National Security Agency, passing a National Secrets Act, revising Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines, bypassing the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, and so on. In a Cabinet decision on July 1, 2014, the Abe Cabinet authorized the exercise of CSD. The opponents of CSD had plenty of ammunition with which to fire back at the decision. Abe et al claimed that the main reason CSD was necessary was because the “security environment around Japan had changed.” The countries most responsible for precipitating this change are, presumably, North Korea and China. But 20 years have passed since the Agreed Framework was signed to end the DPRK’s nuclear program, and although of course North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests of varying success and continues to test launch its missiles, the Kim Jong Un regime has been keeping a relatively low profile – perhaps test-firing missiles to grab a few meager headlines. Indeed the Abe administration has stepped up its overtures to North Korea to resolve the abduction issue, belying its claim that the DPRK is a probable imminent threat. China has certainly been building up its military capability within the last several years, tightening the security environment, but it was of course Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands that sparked the current row over the islands. And even dimmer wits in the Abe administration cannot fail to see that approving CSD will only increase tensions in the region, this rationale of a changed security environment ironically only serving to hastening the spiraling of tensions as China and then Japan successively react to the other’s moves.


Another objection against the Abe administration’s rationale for CSD is that the scenarios upon which the administration and Abe’s handpicked panel of “experts” considering CSD based their justification for CSD were unrealistic, such as the possibility North Korea would launch a missile strike against the United States or attack a US naval vessel on the high seas. Even a former fleet commander-in-chief of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, Yoji Koda, wrote in Bungei Shunju that the scenarios are effectively meaningless because each scenario considers only the initial option, while in reality, the initial scenario option is never that clear – is North Korea firing at a US vessel or another vessel nearby? – and the subsequent responses and counter-responses were never considered by Abe’s civilian “experts.”


But the greatest objections to CSD came in reaction to the way CSD was approved – through a Cabinet decision that bypassed all democratic processes. As is well-known by now, amending the Japanese Constitution requires approval by a two-thirds’ majority in both chambers of the Diet, and then a simple majority in a national referendum. Abe rather breathtakingly bypassed all that by having his Cabinet simply declare an effective change in the Constitution. It has been pointed out that Abe has no understanding of the function of the Constitution and the prime minister’s subordinate relationship to it. Abe’s concept of the function of a national leader is grounded in a very Confucian mindset in which the leader is a sovereign who is “responsible for the Japanese people” (Abe’s words). What Abe forgets, or does not understand, is that he is responsible for protecting the Japanese people in accordance with the nation’s laws. The procedural waters are often intentionally muddied in Japan, and a good example is the Japanese legal system, which is based on a merging of the Napoleonic Code (think the labyrinthine Kamakura bakufu edicts) and English Common Law, the basis for the current Constitution. In the United States, for instance, the Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of laws, but in Japan, while the Japanese Supreme Court should also assume that prerogative, in fact it is the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) that does so. But the problem is the CLB has no constitutional authority to render final judgments on constitutionality; its power resides in custom.


This kind of discussion leads inevitably to the question of whether Japan is really a democracy or not. It can be argued that the Japanese Supreme Court has been left feckless and conservative intentionally by appointing judges at late ages who have passed through the judicial ranks by hewing to an authorized line. Critics of the political system point to the large number of hereditary lawmakers and the disparities in voting power. But what does this have to do with CSD? Potentially a great deal. As will be discussed in more detail later, deterrence depends on how the other side views your capability and likelihood of using military force. For China, the alarming aspect of Japan’s move toward exercising the right of CSD is not Japan’s military capability per se but the ease with which Japan could apply it. China should be wary that Japan, under a crypto-tyrannical leader like Abe, could quickly shed its democratic skin and engage in military action by diktat. Still fresh in mind is Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s reported comment that the Nazis were able to deftly change the Weimer Constitution without anyone really noticing, and then suggesting, “Why don’t we learn from their tactics?” It appears that Abe followed Aso’s Nazi-inspired advice.


But little in Japan is completely black and white, and, like its population, there is a great deal of gray. Public opinion was unexpectedly quite critical of Abe’s railroading of approval for the exercise of CSD, with, according to the opinion polls, up to a strong majority against the administration’s action. In July the LDP suffered a turnaround setback in a bell-weather gubernatorial election, likely, in part, because of the reinterpretation of CSD. Abe was apparently spooked enough by the groundswell of opposition to put off submitting CSD-related legislation to the Diet until next year, rather than in the fall, as he had originally planned. (As an interesting sidebar to illustrate Abe’s political adroitness, Abe has decided to create a new ministerial post to shepherd the CSD-related bills through the Diet. He wants LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba to take the post, first, because Ishiba is a supposed expert on defense issues, and, second, since Ishiba is Abe’s chief rival for control of the party, by having Ishiba take up a Cabinet post, he will be able to neutralize Ishiba. Ishiba is in a quandary: if he accepts the post, he could lose his chance to become prime minister; if he refuses, he can be accused of putting self-interest above the interests of the country, particularly since he proclaims himself to be such an expert on security matters and would, presumably, be the ideal person to take the post.) The upshot of all this is that while Abe could initially usurp the laws of the land to try to carry out a militaristic venture, the opposition — in other words, democracy — in Japan might be strong enough to stop him.


The United States of course backs Japan’s exercise of CSD as there are absolutely no downsides for the US. America wants Japan to exercise CSD because: 1) it reduces the military and financial burden on the US, 2) integrates Japan more fully and effectively into security missions, and 3) (in the minds of some) prevents Japan from being too independent militarily. It has been charged that the United States has been after Japan to exercise CSD like a “dog barking after a car but with no idea what to do when it catches it.” However, the US military presumably wants the SDF for minesweeping operations, reconnaissance and surveillance, and ballistic missile defense. The US government also strongly supported the Abe administration’s state secrets legislation, eager to prevent the further leakage of US military secrets. The upcoming formal review of the Japan-US defense cooperation guidelines before the end of the year was also one of the factors leading the Abe administration to hurry through with the Cabinet decision approving CSD. If there was any doubt about the US position towards Japan’s exercise of CSD, it was completely dispelled when US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, a staunch liberal but of course a representative of the US government, came out with a “statement of support for collective self-defense.”


Great Wall of China


If it was not very effective militarily, China’s Great Wall was at least a metaphorical indicator of China’s intense desire to keep out invading barbarians. But China’s new Great Wall — the Western-termed Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy — is a very formidable and effective deterrent against outside threats, particularly from the United States. I do not know which genius Chinese general or military theorist put together this comprehensive “counter-intervention” strategy, but it seems apparent that China closely studied America’s successes in Desert Storm and NATO’s operations in the Balkans and realized that stopping the projection of air power was crucial for any defense of its homeland.


China’s A2/AD strategy is centered on five platforms: 1) land-attack missile systems, 2) anti-ship missile systems, 3) submarines, 4) air defense systems, and 5) cyber-attacks. They are all pretty much concerned with stopping air attacks. In Desert Storm, the Chinese realized how easy it was for the US military to fly in assets to staging areas next to Iraq for the invasion. The crucial point is to prevent an enemy from easy access to, and freedom of action in areas near, China. China now has the short- and medium-range ballistic missiles able to attack Okinawa and even Guam. In a conflict, if China took out US and Japanese military bases in Okinawa, the US military would be forced to stage operations from Guam, the distance from China causing enormous logistical and operational problems. China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), particularly its DF-21D ASBM, and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) could sink US naval vessels, including its aircraft carriers. Chinese submarines, once derided for being so noisy, have become much more sophisticated, with their air independent propulsion systems, and the incident in 2006 when a PLAN submarine stalked a US aircraft carrier group and then surfaced within firing range without being detected shows how advanced China’s submarines have become. China’s surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and air force make up an effective integrated air defense system (IADS) that could prevent US air superiority, something the US military has almost taken for granted everywhere else in the world. China’s fifth-generation prototype fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31, have been making successful test flights and could repel US fifth-generation fighters from Chinese airspace. Disrupting communications is also crucial in modern warfare, and China’s cyber-attack capabilities are well-known. China’s cyber-attacks against US government networks are a matter of record, and China demonstrated that it could shoot down a satellite in 2007. China’s A2/AD strategy has the capability not only to deter and repel an invasion but also to push back the US military further out into the Pacific and away from Asia because its aircraft carriers are now more vulnerable, thus reducing the US presence in Asia (note the foundering US “pivot to Asia”).


Big Boys


Despite the highly deterrent-effective capability of A2/AD, why then is China diverting precious resources to a dubious symbol of force projection: aircraft carriers?


In January this year, Wang Min, the Communist Party chief of Liaoning Province made the first “official” announcement at a people’s congress meeting that China had started construction of its first indigenous aircraft carrier in Dalian (some reports say Wang said two carriers are being constructed there) and that China would have four aircraft carriers in the future. Considering his senior position in the party, Wang Min’s statements have credibility. China of course already has its well-reported Liaoning aircraft carrier, even toured by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The tour was probably less an attempt at transparency on the Chinese side than a recognition that, to paraphrase Dr. Strangeglove: What good is a doomsday machine if no one knows you have it?


Plugged-in news portals in Hong Kong and elsewhere report that China has already started construction of two Type 001A carriers at the Dalian shipyard and one Type 002 carrier at the Jiangnan shipyard on Changxing Island in Shanghai. Photographs have already appeared on the Internet of what appears to be the aircraft carrier under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard. Though bigger, the Type 001A carriers are modeled after the Liaoning. However, the most important index for assessing a carrier’s firepower is the number of sorties it can launch. The sortie rate for US Nimitz-class carriers is 160 aircraft per day. The most optimistic sortie estimates for the Liaoning put the rate at around a third of that, 55 sorties per day. The main reason China is modeling its first domestically produced carriers after the Liaoning is because, despite the Liaoning‘s deficiencies, since China already has experience refitting the Liaoning, it should be easier and faster to construct similar carriers. But the Type 001A carriers will also be remodeled to facilitate the faster movement of fighters from the hangar to the flight deck and to incorporate the possible use of catapults for take-offs. These and other changes should increase the sortie rate from the Liaoning‘s 54 to 100 or so aircraft per day.


The Type 002 carrier will reportedly be commissioned in 2019, one year after the Type 001 carriers. It will apparently have a flat, angled deck, rather than a ski jump-type deck, catapults, greater size, more sophisticated weapons systems, and the potential to be nuclear-powered. A nuclear-powered carrier would be important for China because, unlike the United States, China does not have naval bases around the world, so a nuclear carrier would not have refueling restrictions. The Type 002 carrier should also be able to carry China’s new J-31 stealth aircraft. Though roughly similar to Kitty Hawk-class carriers in tonnage, the Type 002 should significantly surpass them in firepower, but still be behind Nimitz-class carriers.


Aircraft carriers do not travel alone of course, and China has rushed to build a range of submarines, missile destroyers, cruiser escorts, frigates, corvettes, and supply ships to make up carrier strike groups.


Sitting Ducks


The question is why China wants to spend so much money for aircraft carriers. Many commentators suggest that it was the “aircraft carrier shock” China received when the United States sent two carriers to the Taiwan Strait during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Spooked by that show of intimidating force, China soon accelerated its military buildup.


Of course aircraft carriers have an irresistible allure for military and state leaders. They are an ultimate symbol of threat projection, military power, and state might; they have, to put it crudely, a phallic presence. But like all such psychosexual projections, they can easily become dysfunctional, considering all the lost time needed for training and dry-docking maintenance, repairs, overhauls, etc., which takes them away from active service.


I believe there are three major reasons why China’s expansion of its aircraft carrier fleet is unnecessary.


1) Endless catch-up — At present, the total firepower of the Liaoning just surpasses that of the US Midway-class carriers, which have already been mothballed. Although China appears to be building a Type 002 possibly nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, it will still have less firepower than a current Nimitz-class carrier and be far behind the Ford-class supercarriers, which will have 50% to 70% greater firepower than the Nimitz-class carriers and are scheduled to be in continuous construction up until 2058. China has made tremendous strides with its aircraft and missile weapon systems, its fifth-generation stealth fighters being a serious threat to similar-class US fighters. But aircraft carriers are a very complex and massive integration of networks and systems, and China will likely not be able to close the gap with the United States as readily as it did with stealth fighters, chiefly because of America’s huge head start. The risk for China is that it will throw its money and resources into a bottomless pit to try to catch up, a fruitless arms race that could cost China $9 billion for one carrier (the newest US carrier will cost $13 billion) — about the amount Japan spends for its entire Official Development Assistance (ODA) outlays in one year — and force it to spend millions of dollars per day to operate a single carrier strike force. As mentioned above, China already has a very strong foundation for its Anti-Access/Area Denial defense, so its defensive needs are already well-served.


2) Chasing pirates? — Aside from the prestige involved, what will China do with an aircraft carrier-centered blue-water navy? Unlike the United States, which has commitments around the world, China has no collective self-defense obligations with any other countries, except possibly North Korea. It needs to play no role as a global policeman. In the late 1970s the United States tried to cut spending sharply for aircraft carriers, but the Iran crisis required carrier battle group deployments in the Middle East, and spending cuts were eased. The current ISIS attacks into Iraq highlight the need, from the Western perspective, for carrier deployments to launch airstrikes against extreme Islamist forces. But where does China stand in these global crises? The most plausible reason for China to have aircraft carriers is to protect its energy lifeline of oil tankers going to and from the Middle East. But if this lifeline were threatened, so would that of other countries; China could ally with those countries, including the United States, to protect these maritime transport corridors. And where would these threats come from? From Somali pirates? Sending an aircraft carrier strike group to deal with a bunch of pirates seems a bit of overkill. It would be much cheaper just to bribe them not to attack your ships. If key sea lanes were mined, China could ironically team up with Japan, as it has in the Gulf of Aden, for demining operations, since both countries depend on the narrow passageway between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for their energy shipments. A wonderful irony would arise if Japan could send its minesweepers to the region, as Prime Minister Abe wants to do through the exercise of the right of CSD, to rescue the energy lifelines of both Japan and China. Elsewhere in the world, China would probably want to protect the countries where it has invested the most. According to CNBC, the top three countries for China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) are (1) Hong Kong, (2) the Cayman Islands, and (3) the British Virgin Islands. It is hard to see China sending aircraft carriers into Victoria Harbour to quell local dissidents, or to the Cayman Islands to protect the bank accounts of its rich.


3) On the road to war — Aside from nuclear weapons themselves, aircraft carriers can be called the highest expression of deterrence because (1) they are very intimidating threat projection, and (2) if they are attacked, the attacking side can expect a full retaliation. It is easy to understand the second reason. Aircraft carriers are so expensive and, with 5,000-6,000 people on board, they are “cities on the sea”; losing one would necessitate a full-scale retaliation.  Chinese military sources say that the new aircraft carriers currently under construction will be deployed at naval bases in Hainan Province, which faces the South China Sea. Thus the most immediate utilization of the carriers would be to bolster China’s military activities in the South China Sea against Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries with which it has territorial disputes, and also in the East China Sea against Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This would be extremely provocative and be like throwing a match in a tinderbox. As mentioned above, aircraft carriers have a highly deterrent effect, but this deterrence can quickly and dramatically diminish because in this day and age of very sophisticated submarine and anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities, aircraft carriers are akin to the proverbial sitting duck. If China deployed an aircraft carrier to the East China Sea and tensions escalated to the point where the carrier used its firepower, it would be vulnerable to US or Japanese anti-ship missiles from submarines or land. If the Chinese carrier were sunk or badly damaged, China would retaliate in strength and the outcome would be the unthinkable: full-scale war.




Both Japan and China justify the bolstering of their military capabilities as necessary for “deterrence.” Under the Abe administration’s explanations, it is difficult to see how Japan’s exercise of collective self-defense per se could present much of a military threat to China, but the disguised nature of those explanations and the Abe Cabinet’s ignoring of democratic processes should alarm China. At the same time, it is difficult to see what lasting deterrence Chinese aircraft carriers will provide to bolster China’s already formidable and effective A2/AD defensive strategy and, indeed, what their actual function will be. In the name of “deterrence,” both sides are reinforcing and ramping up tensions that could easily spiral into full-scale conflict.